WABASHA — On Dec. 2, Jennifer Drayna sat down next to "Little Boy," sipped her beloved coffee and read a novel.
It was nothing dramatic.
It was, however, the National Eagle Center trainer's first step toward changing a wild bald eagle into one that can be used for public presentations. The full transformation will take patience, an ability to read the eagle's moods and lots of mice.
The goal is to the have the eagle fully acclimated to being with many people, including those with flashing cameras and high-energy children, by the end of the year, she said. As for the mice, "he absolutely adores mice," she said. "He absolutely gets excited on mouse day."
Little Boy was found on a beach along the Pacific Ocean a few months ago, nearly starving, according to the center. He had been born several months before but had a deformity in his eye socket that wouldn't let him live in the wild. He was taken to West Sound Wildlife Shelter on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where the goal was to keep him alive and nurse him back to health with as little human contact as possible, said Eileen Hanson, the center's director of public relations.
At Wabasha's center, Little Boy will get a different focus. The experts will get it ready for being comfortable in front of crowds, she said. The bird, which Drayna dubbed "Little Boy," will be used to replace Harriet, a 34-year-old bald eagle that is too old for programs. The center has three other bald eagles, and one golden eagle, for programs. It needs to keep new birds coming to replace ones that get old. The new bird, and Harriet, are housed near the center in a different building. Drayna, for now, is the only one having contact with the bird.
Birds are the biggest draw of the large center, Hanson said. "We call them ambassadors because they are ambassadors for the wild eagles," she said. They let people get close to them so they can see what a truly wild bird is like.
Getting a bird ready to be an ambassador is Drayna's job.
She said she has a biology degree and has also received extensive advanced training in training wildlife. She said fell in love with working with wildlife while an intern at a nature center where she worked with other raptors and porcupines.
Birds might be very different animals, but the principles are the same — reward them when they do things you want and ignore the things you don't.
"I enjoy training these birds," Drayna said. "It's kind of like a puzzle."
In the case of Little Boy, she began by letting him be comfortable with her. That's where reading came in. The next step was to put a leather thong on his leg. All the while, she has also had to teach Little Boy to accept having eye drops put in to control infections. That has taken quite a bit of work.
Young eagles are more willing to learn because they don't have the good or bad experiences older eagles have had with humans, Hanson said. They are open to learn. "It's like a toddler exploring their world," she said.
There is no schedule for when the young eagle moves on to the next step, Drayna said. "He kind of shows me by jumping to the next step," she said. If he doesn't like something, he will jump away. "We try to give him a say in what's going on."
The key is to give him treats for doing what Drayna wants. To make sure he knows exactly what he did right, she makes a clicking sound and immediately gives Little Boy a bit of food.
Once he's comfortable enough, the center will bring in a few people to let him get used to them. And then 10 or 20, maybe people with flashing cameras. Finally, he will be allowed to be part of the regular program, Drayna said.
Getting a young eagle is special because it will be interesting for people to be able to watch the bird change over the years, growing his white head and tail feathers in about four more years," Hanson said.