The National Zoo will open a new exhibit today to help protect one of the country’s most iconic animals — the bald eagle.
The majestic bird of prey, long a symbol of the U.S. government, faced extinction in the 1970s. The population is returning and the birds now are frequently seen along the Potomac River.
The opening ceremony begins at 10 a.m. Scheduled speakers include Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, National Zoo Director Lucy Spelman and singer-actress Dolly Parton.
Visitors can get as close as an arm’s length to the enclosed birds, which have an 8-foot wingspan, said Linda Moore, a zoo biologist who routinely feeds the birds.
The exhibit is a partnership between the zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Zoo officials and Living Ecosystems of Easton, Md., designed the exhibit, which allows visitors to see the eagles among rock formations, a pond, potential nesting areas and other elements of their natural habitat. The exhibit also has a heated natural shelter and perch.
A boardwalk takes visitors along a trail passing wetlands and ascending to an observation deck. The exhibit is enclosed with steel netting that blends into the surroundings to give visitors a clear, unobstructed view.
The two bald eagles on exhibit were found injured in the wild and nurtured back to health by wildlife rehabilitators. They have been cared for at the American Eagle Foundation, an eagle refuge with headquarters in Tennessee at Miss Parton’s Dollywood theme park.
Samantha, a 10-pound female, was found in Alaska in 1986, with a severely damaged wing from a gunshot wound. Tioga, the 7-pound male, was found in Pennsylvania with injuries that left him unable to fly.
The AEF, formerly the National Foundation to Protect America’s Eagles, is also involved in the project. The nonprofit organization is licensed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service to possess, care for, exhibit, rehabilitate and breed birds of prey including bald eagles.
Since 1991, at the Dollywood facilities, the agency has cared for dozens of bald eagles that are not ready for release. Over the past decade the agency has also helped return dozens of infant eagles, born to parents needing to stay in captivity, into the Tennessee wild.
Thirty years ago, the bald eagle was in danger of extinction because of loss of habitat, hunting and DDT poisoning. But the population has steadily grown since the federal government outlawed that pesticide in 1972 and enacted the Endangered Species Act and other regulations to further protect the birds.
“In the 1960s, the number of breeding pairs of eagles had dropped to 500 in the lower 48 states,” said Miss Moore. “After DDT was banned and the Endangered Species Act was passed, the number is now more than 6,000.”
Because the bald eagle population is doing so well, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to remove it from the list of threatened and endangered species.
The exhibit features an interactive video presentation that highlights conservation success stories, an area for interpretive talks and animal demonstrations, and a blind through which visitors can view the birds.
Friday is also National Bald Eagle Day. Zoo officials have planned special programs for families from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The eagles are still a bit shy, said Miss Moore, because they are not yet acclimated to their new home.
“The birds just came to us last week on June 23,” she said. “So they’re still getting used to the different surroundings. Once they adjust to being here, they’ll move more freely about the grounds.”