- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

Bald eagles have been such iconic symbols of America and American values for more than two centuries, it’s surprising to see the birds close-up and in the flesh — as real birds — and visitors to the National Zoo can now do just that, with the opening of the new Bald Eagle Refuge Exhibit this week.

That occasion was celebrated Wednesday evening at a reception welcoming the eagles and honoring the National Wildlife Refuge System, which is marking its centennial this year. The dress code on the invitation was described as “patriotic casual,” inspiring many of the 120 guests to wear jeans and some combination of red, white, and blue. Most were from the three sponsoring organizations: the zoo, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The room in the humid Amazonia building (the party was moved indoors because of rain) was bedecked with flags, and the band played the national anthem. The food was French (just kidding).

The zoo’s two eagles, Tioga and Sam, came to Washington by way of the American Eagle Foundation (AEF), an eagle rehabilitation organization that’s heavily funded by Dolly Parton and based at her Tennessee theme park, Dollywood.

Miss Parton was at the zoo earlier in the day for a press event, where she accepted an award from the Interior Department for her generous contributions to eagle welfare.

Tioga and Sam’s new home is an attractive foresty area that’s enclosed in subtle netting. It’s adjacent to a wooden hut offering education about the bald eagle and the country’s 541 National Wildlife Refuges.

“It’s a close-up encounter with what I think is the most gorgeous bird,” National Zoo Director Lucy Spelman said.

She added that what’s most impressive about eagles are their eyes. “They have binocular vision,” Miss Spelman said. They can spot a moving rabbit from nearly a mile away.

Al Cecere, president and founder of AEF, brought another bald eagle, appropriately named America, to the reception. America drew some admiring stares, especially when the bird showed off its impressive wingspan. “I tell you,” one onlooker said, “that is one classy looking critter.”

“They’re just like the pandas,” said Steve Griles, deputy secretary for the Interior Department. “People are going to love them.”

Tioga, the male, came to Mr. Cecere from Pennsylvania with a broken wing. Sam, the white-headed female, was rescued by AEF after being shot and having part of her wing amputated. She’s more than 24-years-old, geriatric compared with Tioga, who’s only 4 or 5 — too young to have earned a white head and tail. (Zoos, of course, only accept eagles that are unable to fly.)

Though it’s no longer endangered — there are now 50,000 bald eagles, up from 400 pairs in the 1960s — the bird is still treated like a carefully guarded national treasure. The weighty subtext to some of the praises sung in the eagle’s name is that, like America, it has survived and thrived despite “having stood at the very precipice of extinction,” as the exhibition’s video puts it.

“The significance is that it is a species that has recovered,” Mr. Griles said. “That due to the efforts of many people, the symbol of this country is no longer threatened.”

So what made our forefathers settle on the bald eagle as our national bird back in 1782? “It can only be found in America, for one,” Mr. Cecere explained. “We wanted something unique. And it represented strength and power.”

Things may have been very different for our national bird, however. Not all the Founding Fathers were ga-ga over the mighty bald eagle. “Ben Franklin wanted the turkey,” Miss Spelman noted.

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