Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
AWC Director of Education and Outreach Scottie Jackson holds a Eurasian eagle-owl, one of their education ambassador birds.
The Alabama Wildlife Center soon may be permanent home to two symbols of America.
AWC Executive Director Doug Adair said the center is raising funds to build a 90-foot-wide enclosure behind the existing main building, which houses educational exhibits and rehabilitation facilities. The new enclosure would be home to a Eurasian eagle-owl, which came to the center about two months ago, and two bald eagles to be used as education program birds.
“We think this will be an extraordinary addition … and really take us to the next level,” Adair said.
The AWC treats nearly 2,000 wild birds per year for release, but it also keeps several birds of prey trained to be handled and participate in education programs at schools, clubs and events across the state. Adair said the center’s education programs have seen exponential growth in the past three years, increasing from about 35 educational visits to more than 330 in 2016.
Adair said the bald eagle enclosure would be a destination for visitors from across the state, as the only other bald eagle on educational exhibit in Alabama is on the Gulf Coast. However, they also would be able to travel with the other ambassador birds to teach about wildlife conservation.
“One eagle could be out participating in educational programming, and one could always be in the mew,” Adair said.
Building the enclosure, which will be elevated due to the steep hillside, will include creating a new pathway and getting rid of a couple of outdoor enclosures to make the path ADA-compliant. There will be new exhibits built along with the path, as well as information stations at the eagle and eagle-owl enclosure.
The cost to build the enclosure is about $240,000, and Adair said they plan to raise funds for that through grants and donations. The AWC does not receive state or federal funds and uses donations to run its day-to-day work. The Shelby County government has offered its help through engineering and design work.
“It’s been very gratifying to see how excited [county manager] Alex Dudchock and the folks with Shelby County have been about this project,” Adair said.
In the long term, the AWC wants to expand and build an enclosure specifically for rehabilitating large raptor species such as bald eagles, osprey and vultures. The center can do preliminary treatment when these injured species arrive, but they do not have the space to get the birds back to a releasable condition. Instead, the AWC transports these birds to another bird center in Auburn.
“While we have this immediate opportunity with the education programs, our ultimate goal is to construct this rehabilitation mew,” Adair said.
Once the enclosure is constructed, the AWC will find its occupants through its network of bird rehabilitators across the country. Though the AWC does sometimes treat bald eagles, Adair said their goal is always to release when possible, and the education bald eagles will be birds that could not be released for some reason. This is the case with the Eurasian eagle-owl that will share the enclosure. Though not a U.S. native species, he came to the center from another facility in Wyoming after being seized from an unfit owner.
“He is quite an attention-getter,” Adair said.
Keeping a bald eagle requires stringent permitting processes and a caretaker with 500 certified hours handling bald eagles. AWC Director of Education and Outreach Scottie Jackson already has many of these hours and will be able to complete them and train others once they receive the permit.
“What is ordinarily the most challenging hurdle in the permitting process is not a challenge for us,” Adair said.
Go to awrc.org to learn more about the Alabama Wildlife Center’s work.