WABASHA, Minn. — Blind in one eye, the bald eagle Was’aka showed off his impressive wingspan Saturday at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha.
His talons, which have more gripping strength than a crocodile’s jaws, clutched the rubber sheath volunteer CJ Jacobson had to protect her skin while holding him.
A crowd of about 60 gathered Saturday as part of the National Eagle Center’s Soar with Eagles programming each weekend in March, timed with the return of the birds to southeast Minnesota that draw crowds to the center, each spring as well as along rest stops along Hwy. 61 and other places.
Was’aka was found young and starving in Florida. They removed a large tumor from his left eye and found that he was blind, making him unable to survive in the wild. Shortly thereafter, he came to stay at the Eagle Center. Saturday, he perched majestically in front of a large crowd.
Renner Lundgren said his favorite part of the eagle program was “when he was showing off his feathers going like that.” He demonstrated by holding his arm up, a smile on his face.
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Renner’s brother Gabriel, 6, held “Mr. Chomper,” his pet stuffed eagle, in his lap as he watched Was’aka feed. He sat in the front row with his family, who took the day for a family excursion from St. Paul to the eagle center.
“They did a great job with education and telling the stories of the eagle,” said Bernie Beltmann, the Lundgrens’ grandmother.
Center director Rolf Thompson said the Soar with Eagles programs draws about 12,000 people to the center. Over the course of a year, about 80,000 people visit.
“It has quite an impact economically in the community,” Thompson said. “It’s a phenomenal thing. Those of us that live here sometimes take it for granted because we see eagles every day.”
The center is open every day, with four live eagles. They also run programs three times per day about eagle biology, ecology and behavior. Next Saturday, they will host a traveling planetarium. The center also recently opened the “Discover the Refuge” exhibit, in partnership with the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge.
Thompson said eagles aren’t just a “wonder of nature,” but are also important symbols in Native American culture and American history. Bald eagles nearly went extinct due to the pesticide DDT in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970 the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge, which spans from north of Wabasha 260 miles south to Illinois, there was only one nesting pair of bald eagles, Thompson said. Today there are more than 300 nests along the refuge, he said.
“We need to apply the same understanding and policy to protect our natural resources,” Thompson said.