The story below is an excerpt from our July/August 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
Al Cecere slips on a thick falconer’s glove and walks to the far end of the barn where he and his staff rehabilitate injured birds of prey a half-mile from Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
At the other end of the 200-foot-long corridor, another handler releases a bald eagle named Challenger, who has lived at the American Eagle Foundation facility since 1989, when he fell out of his nest as a baby and was rescued by humans. The imposing raptor flaps his wings and flies straight toward Cecere, first gliding atop the floor, then ascending higher and higher, tail feathers spread, before landing on Cecere’s outstretched glove.
Challenger may be the AEF’s most high-profile resident—he “performs” patriotic flyovers at major sporting events and presidential inaugurations—but he’s got plenty of company. Since 1985, when Cecere, a former film producer, started the non-profit organization to save bald eagles in Tennessee, AEF has bred and released approximately 140 birds in the Great Smoky Mountains and helped other agencies release 250 more throughout the state.
The foundation has also rehabilitated thousands of injured and abandoned birds of prey, from condors and barn owls to red-tailed hawks and ravens and, of course, bald eagles like Challenger, who survived his early tumble in perfect shape but wasn’t able to live in the wild after bonding with human rescuers. In addition, AEF runs what is billed as the world’s largest eagle exhibit at Dollywood; introduces rehabbed birds at schools, veterans’ centers, even correctional facilities; and operates eagle cams like the one that drew a following of captivated avian fans in March when two eaglets hatched in the Washington, D.C., nest of “Mr. President” and “The First Lady.”
Considered one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. and supported by celebrities such as Tim McGraw, Jordin Sparks and Bill Clinton, Cecere’s conservation project would not have been necessary had it not been for a steep decline in the bald eagle population. Once a common sight near streams, rivers and lakes in the Blue Ridge, by the early 1960s the number of nesting pairs in the lower 48 states had dwindled to fewer than 450. In 1967, the bald eagle was declared an endangered species.
“In the early days, eagles were shot quite a bit. At one point, the government even had a bounty on them,” says Cecere, a lifelong animal lover whose childhood pet, a pigeon named Patrick, liked to ride on the roof of the slow-moving family car on the way to church. “That’s when they really didn’t know very much about why these birds were good for the environment.”
To make matters worse, DDT from crop-spraying washed into the soil and waterways, where eagles ate the contaminated fish. The insecticide caused their eggshells to become infertile or thin and easily crushed.
The bulk of the restoration took place in the 1980s, and the bald eagle was removed from the endangered list in 2007. Today, about 15,000 nesting pairs live in the lower 48 states. Without the official Endangered designation, says Cecere, the birds might have become extinct.
“People couldn’t pursue eagles, harm them or chop down their trees,” he says. “It gave the eagle the edge it needed to make a recovery.”
Even so, America’s feathered symbol of patriotism still faces challenges, primarily from land development that destroys its natural habitat. “We still have to be very vigilant about protecting them,” Cecere says. “We better continually keep an eye out for our national bird. All of us are responsible for that.”