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Arts & Culture

Bald Eagle Models Foster Parenting

Natalie Jablonski

This Father’s Day weekend, we take a look at a story of model parenting from an unlikely place: the world of birds.  We meet a bald eagle who’s done a remarkable job as a foster father to over a hundred and fifty orphaned chicks.

They call him Amp. 

“People are always surprised when I say we have a foster dad eagle. And they’re like, “well where’s the mom?” Well, it would be great if we had a mom…but we don’t have a non-releasable mom . And he does such a great job.”

That’s Marge Gibson, Executive Director of the Raptor Education Group.  It’s a wildlife rehabilitation center in Antigo that takes in injured birds…and baby chicks who have lost parents.  We’re peering in through the door of the eagle compound…where right now foster dad Amp is in charge of four eaglets. 

“The babies are very dark and they’re very hard to see from this angle because they blend in. But you’re sort of seeing a microcosm of what occurs in the wild. The babies are not very evident, and they don’t get that white head and white tail till they’re between five and seven years old in our area.”

We can’t get too close because the staff at REGI are careful to minimize human contact with the chicks.  The goal is to release the birds back into their habitat, and they have to be fully independent of humans to survive in the wild.  Not to mention the fact that this protective father wouldn’t be very happy if we threatened his brood. 

“You notice that he’s actually between us and the chicks. Even though we’re not there, we’re just looking and he sees us. He doesn’t want us to come in. He’s saying in his language – I got it. Don’t come in…they’re good.”

The name Amp happens to be short for Amputation, as the bird lost part of his wing in an accident.  

Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News
Raptors recovering from injury regain their strength by exercising in this flight area.

  His disability is the reason he’ll be a lifelong resident at REGI, instead of being released back to the wild.  He’s been here 17 years, helping to rear chicks each spring.  One year he raised 22 babies. 

He’s a very important guy, and really needs father of the year I’m sure.”

Gibson says it’s a rare and valuable thing to have a seasoned foster dad at the ready.  That’s why these orphaned eaglets were sent up here all the way from Kentucky. 

“We can take care of them, we can give them the right food, we can do a lot of things. But we can’t teach them to be eagles. We can’t teach them the vocalizations that they need. Their baby vocalizations are so different from the adults. And so they learn how to function in a wild society. Which is so important when they’re going to be released.”

Gibson’s eyes sparkle as she talks about the birds.  She says ever since she can remember, she’s had a deep affection for the winged creatures.  She built the center in 1990, and now operates it with a shoestring crew of staff and volunteers. 

Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News
Marge Gibson is Executive Director of Raptor Education Group.

The lush grounds of the wildlife center are teeming with birds, chirping and crowing around every corner. It’s set up like a compound…full of huts and structures to house the eagles and other kinds of birds – everything from cranes to owls to hummingbirds.  To keep out predators, the aviaries are built with extra-strength chain link fence covered in a green shade cloth.  It’s the same material you might see on the sides of a tennis court. 

“People always tell me it looks it looks like a fortress. And it is. And there are a lot of good reasons for that.”

Gibson describes how new birds arrive at the center every day.   Sometimes staff even get calls about injured birds in the middle of the night.  She says as long as it’s a native species, no bird in need will be turned away. 

Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News
Marge Gibson carefully hand-feeds a baby bird at REGI.

“The Northwoods is such a sensitive place. You know, urban areas they have many more sparrows and starlings and things. We have the sensitive species here. This is kind of the incubator for many of those species. This is a special area, and we need to protect it.”

Gibson says 70 percent of birds that come in are released back into the wild…thanks to the hard work of staff and volunteers…and veteran bird parents like Amp.