Riverbanks Zoo decided to ship its two bald eagles to other zoos in 1998 and go with more exotic birds in its new Birdhouse.
Since then, people routinely asked Martin Vince, curator of birds, why the national bird wasn’t represented at Riverbanks. This week, the bald eagle finally returns to the Riverbanks collection.
The young female eagle now on display at Riverbanks was found injured in a ditch in December and taken to Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Delaware. Veterinarians nursed the bird back to health, but a shoulder injury makes her too poor of a flyer to survive in the wild. When the bird was offered to zoos, Riverbanks provided her a home. A new enclosure has been built next to the grizzly bear exhibit.
When the zoo’s two original bald eagles, donated by Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1979, were sent to other zoos, the species was in the midst of an amazing rebound in the wild. Populations had shrunk to endangered levels in the mid-1900s before the banning of the insecticide DDT, which not only killed bugs but weakened bird eggs. Bald eagles now are common sights soaring along the waterways of South Carolina, with an estimated 250 nesting pairs in the wild in the state and 10,000 nationwide.
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“This bird’s survival story is really a metaphor for the species as a whole,” Vince said.
In the Midlands, nesting pairs have settled in recent years on the Saluda River near Saluda Shoals Park and at the confluence of the Broad and Saluda rivers near the zoo.
But zoo visitors missed seeing the majestic creatures up close. “We loved those bald eagles,” Vince said visitors often said to him. “When I got the email about this bird, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to reacquire the species.”
The bird is estimated to be a year old, and bald eagles can live up to 35 years in captivity. She will be allowed to acclimate slowly to her new enclosure and to the keepers, Vince said. The goal is to train the bird so she can be brought out perched on a gloved hand at the climax of the daily Wings of the South Bird Show.