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News - March 6, 2013

Bald eagle takes weekend vacation in Menlo Park

by Dave Boyce

A large bald eagle from the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, which had flown off and visited Menlo Park on the weekend of Feb. 23-24, returned to its handler Monday, Feb. 25, in a churchyard in Redwood City, said John Aikin, the executive director of the zoo and the handler.

What persuaded the female eagle to come down from its perch? Hunger and thirst, some prompting by a handler using hand gestures and a whistle, and the tossing of a dead quail in such a way that the eagle could see it, said Mr. Aikin. The eagle, named Sequoia, "ate a quail and a mouse and looked at us like we were all to blame," he said, referring to an eagle's practice of making its feathers stand out to show that it's irritated. But her irritation quickly faded. "She just sat calmly on the (gloved) fist and was was happy to be back," Mr. Aikin said.

Sequoia had been tree-sitting over the weekend in the Suburban Park area of Menlo Park and in North Fair Oaks neighborhood. Her handlers allow her to fly free every day in Byxbee Park on Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto, the exceptions being very hot days and when she is molting. "We like her to go out and soar in circles so people can watch her fly," Mr. Aikin said.

Her schedule — weekdays at 4 p.m. and weekends at 2 p.m. — can be found on Facebook, Mr. Aikin said.

About every three years or so, Sequoia goes on a three-day vacation, he said. But because she's vacationing without her handlers, food and water become hard to find. When they returned her to her enclosure in Palo Alto, "she jumped right down into her bathtub and drank heartily," Mr. Aikin said.

She cannot catch her own food. Her hunting skills are hampered by a diminished ability to use her tail feathers, the result of a gunshot wound when she was young. That, and she was not raised in the wild. "I've never known her to kill anything," Mr. Aikin said.

This soon-to-be 25-year-old eagle has been cared for at the Palo Alto zoo for the past six months, Mr. Aikin said. Before that, she lived at the San Francisco Zoo, where she had been since she was six months old and where Mr. Aikin also tended to her.

She is capable of extended flight — she once flew to Ano Nuevo State Reserve in Pescadero from San Francisco, Mr. Aikin said. Why let her fly? "She likes it, we like it, and we think it's a great way to see a bald eagle," he said. Sequoia is taken on visits to organized groups, and organized groups sometimes visit her. She has a wingspan of about seven feet. While there is inherent risk in letting her loose, the burden is worth the cost. "It's so spectacular to see her fly," he said.

The San Francisco Zoo ended its eagle breeding program, and Mr. Aikin managed to have Sequoia transferred to Palo Alto, though as is the case with all bald eagles, Sequoia is the property of the U.S. government.

During Sequoia's recent vacation in Menlo Park, she had come within three feet of a handler's leather glove but flew off, perhaps because she was confused. "She'll fly around to look for a way to get to us," he said. "We're really in a waiting game until she feels comfortable enough and motivated enough to come down."

Bald eagles are flighty and high-strung, he said. Something as innocent as a colorful piece of clothing can be alienating. For food, she likes dead rats, mice, quail, rabbit and fish.

On Feb. 23, North Fair Oaks resident Scott Peterson told the Almanac that he'd been out in his backyard around 4 p.m. and had seen a large bird soaring a couple of hundred feet above some redwood trees. "I noticed it because it was so large," he said.

Mr. Peterson said he'd been unaware that he might have been looking at an eagle. "That was a huge, huge bird," he said, "the biggest bird I've seen in 30 years of living here."

Photographer and Menlo Park resident Jim Vanides observed Sequoia and photographed her the next day around 5 p.m. from Hedge Road in incorporated Menlo Park. He said he spotted the eagle in pine trees along the Dumbarton railroad spur line near the Suburban Park area of Menlo Park.


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