Aviary captures spirit of Indian ancestors

 

An immature golden eagle lives at the Zuni Pueblo aviary, constructed to house eagles so that tribal members can use the birds' feathers in religious ceremonies.
An immature golden eagle lives at the Zuni Pueblo aviary, constructed to house eagles so that tribal members can use the birds' feathers in religious ceremonies.

Malcolm Bowekaty, governor of the Zuni Pueblo tribe in western New Mexico, is proud of the latest addition to the reservation.

All earth tones and pueblo-style architecture, the new building blends well against a backdrop of sharp-edged mesas. Vertical rows of neatly ordered pine slats separated by 2-inch gaps form the walls and give the structure an airiness that is important to its 11 occupants: golden and bald eagles.

"Not only do we revere wildlife," Bowekaty said, "many species ... are sacred and some are considered to be incarnations of our ancestors. One of these is the eagle, and many aspects of our religion call for the use of eagle feathers."

Since Congress enacted the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1962, tribes must apply for permits and make official requests from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Eagle Repository near Denver, Colorado. The facility stores birds specifically for the purpose of distributing carcasses or feathers to tribes.

"While this system has its benefits, it often takes more than three years to receive an eagle carcass," said Steve Albert, then director of the Zuni Fish and Wildlife Department. "This is an unacceptably long delay when a tribal religious leader needs feathers for an upcoming ceremony."

The Zuni aviary houses eagles so that tribal members can use the feathers in religious ceremonies. The tribe does not kill birds or keep carcasses in the facility.

Largest of the 19 New Mexico Indian pueblos, Zuni is home to one of the most traditional tribes in North America. Devotion to tradition is the reason for the many requests for feathers. For the past few years, according to Albert, up to 40 percent of all requests to the National Eagle Repository from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest region were from members of the Zuni tribe.


The Zuni Pueblo aviary houses non-releasable birds. Birds with broken bones, a missing wing, no vision or other permanent injuries are considered non-releasable.
Four years ago, the tribe initiated discussions with the Fish and Wildlife Service about how to alleviate the waiting period.

"One of the alternatives," Albert said, "was to build our own eagle aviary, with the hope that there would be a supply of non-releasable birds to place in it."

Birds with broken bones, a missing wing, no vision or other permanent injuries are considered non-releasable. Eagle rehabilitators certified veterinarians trained to rehabilitate eagles and other raptors usually determine whether a bird has regained the ability to survive in the wild.

"Any tribe can have eagle aviaries with the proper permits," said John Antonio, the service's Native American liaison for the Southwest region. "But to fulfill the various technical requirements, it takes some innovation and a great deal of determination."

After the Zuni Pueblo council determined the technical requirements of operating an eagle facility, tribal members began construction of the aviary, using private funding and donations of time and materials from the Zuni community. Noted Albuquerque architects Claude Armstrong and Donna Cohen volunteered their expertise in designing the building, which strongly reflects its natural surroundings. The structure was completed in March 1999.


The facade of the new aviary is made of sandstone.
The main flight area is 100 feet long by 25 feet wide and 18 feet high, with four smaller enclosed areas for flightless birds. The floor is river-washed pea gravel, and the facade is made from locally quarried sandstone.

The wood comes from sustainably harvested trees milled at the Zuni community sawmill. The front of the building intentionally faces Dowa Yallane, a sacred mesa to the Pueblo tribe.

After requesting and receiving permits from them U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep eagles, the tribe received two non-releasable mature bald eagles from rehabilitators in New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Other eagles have come from various rehabilitation centers. The aviary houses 11 birds, most of which are golden eagles. The tribe is currently discussing the possibility of initiating a captive breeding program, not only to satisfy religious purposes but also to assist in golden eagle restoration efforts in the Southwest.

Reprinted with permission of Ben Ikenson, USFWS