You’d think Jerry Dstwinkle would hate golden eagles. One tore out a bunch of his teeth. One punched a hole nearly clear through his arm. One left three long scars on his wrist.
But people are funny — much harder to figure than eagles.
Because Jerry Dstwinkle just loves golden eagles, an affection on display Saturday at the Payson Wildlife Fair, which drew thousands of people to a fascinating collection of critters and their caretakers on a perfect spring day in Green Valley Park.
Dstwinkle is the coordinator of eagle rehabilitation at the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Adobe Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which rescues and returns to the wild all manner of wildlife — especially birds.
Game and Fish teamed up with the Town of Payson and a host of other sponsors, vendors and participants to give kids and their keepers a chance to pet boa constrictors, tortoises, lizards and llamas; stare somberly at the horns and heads of elk and deer gunned down illegally; delight in the oscillations of osprey kites; paddle kayaks; unloose arrows; count trout; or just loll about under cloud-scudded skies.
Dstwinkle stood patiently through the hours-long fair, with the 12-pound, 9-year-old golden eagle sitting alertly on his leather-gloved wrist, which he rested on a perch stick.
The eagle was hit by a car nine years ago. Adobe Mountain saved the big bird’s life, but decided not to release him back into the wild since he was nearly blind in one eye.
Since then, Dstwinkle has taught the eagle to hunt on command, through the patient application of falconer skills. Now he takes the eagle out as often as he can to hunt — mostly jackrabbits.
Word of advice: Don’t compare golden eagles to bald eagles in Dstwinkle’s earshot.
“Bald eagles,” said Dstwinkle, his voice heavy with contempt, “aren’t eagles.”
Turns out, the national bird’s pretty and all – but lives mostly on fish and ducks and carrion. Golden eagles – more closely related to red tailed hawks than to bald eagles – live on jackrabbits, foxes, marmots, ground squirrels and hawks. Heck, documented reports have them killing bear cubs, coyotes, deer, antelope, calves and wolves. They can carry off sheep, drag mountain goats off cliff faces and pick up tortoises and drop them from on high to crack them open. They can generate more than 700 pounds per square inch of pressure in their talons, enough to penetrate the skull of their prey with the enormous, scythe of a back claw. That’s roughly 15 times the pressure generated in the hands of the world’s strongest man – all concentrated on the needle tip of the talon.
In a dive, they reach speeds of 150 to 200 miles an hour – compared to a bald eagle’s roughly 90 miles an hour. They can pull off a turn that subjects them to forces 11 times the force of gravity. Fighter pilots in pressure suits pass out at 9 g’s.
The line of birds that gave rise to hawks, falcons, eagles and owls diverged from the rest of birddom during the Cretaceous more than 60 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still throwing their weight around. The golden eagle Aquila line split off from bald eagles and the rest of the big predator birds maybe 30 to 50 million years ago although the recognizably modern form doesn’t appear in the fossil record until about 12 million years ago.
Bald eagles nearly died out due to the effects of pesticide and remain confined to North America. Golden eagles number some 180,000 worldwide with populations in Asia, Europe, North America, North Africa and Japan. The US Fish and Wildlife Service puts their numbers in the US at maybe 30,000 – and relatively stable.
The Romans linked their legions and their emperors to the lordly bird, which is now the national symbol of no less than five nations. Native Americans held them sacred, making their feathers essential in prayers and ceremonials. They remain the premier bird of falconers, who have trained them to hunt even deer – although they mostly stick to thinks like jack rabbits.
They mate for life, live for half a century and fiercely defend a 30 to 60 square mile territory, where they’ll build several massive nests of sticks in trees or cliff faces – so they can rotate from nest site to nest site to keep the parasites in check. They’re so fierce that once they’re grown, only wolverines and brown bears qualify as predators. Of course, that’s not counting us – since humans remain their arch enemy, what with all the random shootings, giant windmills, power lines and lead poisoning from feeding on the carcasses of hunter-killed game.
All of which accounts for Dstwinkle’s gush of affection for the fierce-eyed raptor, who he petted affectionately, his smile not quite wide enough to show the gap in back where a golden eagle’s talons once yanked out three molars.
He cautions the visitors to stay back – keep their teeth.
This, after all, is a real eagle – not some fancy-feathered fish eater.
Gotta love the wildlife fair.