IT WAS early evening of October 28, 2016. I was then assisting with cleaning the wound of a newly rescued eagle at the Philippine Eagle Center hospital when out of the corner of my eye, something moved inside a nearby transport kennel. Curious, I walked cautiously towards the plastic bird cage at the corner.
There, inside was a full-grown, female Philippine eagle. She was standing calmly, as if in deep thought.
I found out later that the bird is seriously sick, and our vet thinks the poor eagle is giving in to old age. At 46, she’s the oldest captive eagle on record. She is also functionally blind because of cataract.
Three days later, the eagle passed away.
The eagle’s name is “Thor”, after the Norse God of Thunder. How she got her name we don’t know exactly. But what we do know is that eagle Thor seems to match the demeanor of her namesake.
According to Domingo Tadena, or Manong Doming as we call him, a pioneer Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF)bBiologist and former PEF deputy-director for breeding, eagle Thor has always been fierce and aggressive.
She has trouble connecting with her feathered kind as well as her human caretakers. As a result, she was not able to breed and produce eaglets, both naturally and artificially.
Perhaps the circumstances of her capture could provide clues to why she behaved that way. Records show that Thor was shot as a young eagle in 1971. She was then sold by her shooter. For the next three years, she was caged, handled, and fed by her buyer under conditions we can only guess.
In this kind of environment, young birds can easily succumb to psychological trauma. In 1974, he was turned over to our old rescue facility at Baracatan in Mt Apo.
Thereafter, she was bad at relating with her fellow eagles. For instance, Manong Doming narrated that all efforts in the past to hook Thor up with a potential mate failed. In one such attempt back in the late 1970’s, she went as far as killing her male eagle suitor with her own claws. The poor eagle’s name was “Vader”.
In jest, I quipped that (Darth) Vader of Star Wars is truly no match against the Avenger’s Thor. But Manong Doming, in his usual serious, fatherly tone, was quick to add that the incident optimized eagle pairing procedures at the center.
Today, as a matter of protocol, a wall of cyclone wire physically separates eagles inside a pairing cage. The male can go about with his courtship moves in full view of the female, but the partition is there lest the larger, more dominant female finds the smaller, submissive male suitor unattractive.
The wall is removed only when they show signs of compatibility, like mutual offering of sprigs or branches, successful courtship feeding (male offering food to the female and the female accepting), and frequent vocal exchanges, among others.
Manong Doming also credited Thor for another standard eagle handling procedure at the center – the use of leather gloves as lure to capture and restrain “difficult” eagles on the ground.
As a young animal-keeper then at the Baracatan facility in Mt Apo, Manong Doming was Thor’s caretaker. When the eagle was a young adult, the bird got very ill and had to be heavily medicated. The prognosis then was not good.
Docile and very weak, the bird was taken out of her cage and was placed on a wooden stump untethered for days. This, it seems, was meant to give the bird its one last chance to be in the wild in case it does not survive.
But one day, she was gone from her perch.
After a few hours of search, Manong Doming found the eagle on the ground and cornered her. Wearing his unusually thick, custom-built leather gloves, he tried to grab the eagle’s legs with his right hand. But with the bird lying on its back and with both talons extended and ready to snatch, the bird easily caught his hand.
What followed is a momentary tug-of-war between man and beast? Manong Doming pulling hard to free his gloved hand from the eagle’s grip, and the eagle clasping even tighter.
He felt the formidable claws through the leather with every squeeze of the talons. He feared the worst. Instinctively, Manong Doming slipped his hand out and left the glove with the eagle. The eagle gripped greedily.
After what seemed to me is a “Eureka” moment for him, Manong Doming offered his other gloved hand and the eagle quickly snatched it. He did the same, slipped off his left hand and left the leather glove with the bird. With both claws full, it became very easy for him to grab and restrain the eagle’s legs using only his bare hands. In no time, the bird was restrained with the help of the others and was returned to her cage.
Thereafter, the intentional use of leather gloves as lure for capturing aggressive eagles on the ground became standard.
Indeed, although Thor was never a mother to any eagle at the center, her upkeep paved the way for refining PEF eagle husbandry techniques across the years.
Her charismatic story and fame as the eagle Methuselah of the center inspired ABS-CBN’s Kuya Kim (Kim Atienza) and wife Feli Atienza to adopt Thor. Since 2008, the Atienza couple donated funds to make sure that the aged Thor gets the right care, housing conditions, food, and medicine.
And truly, she aged decently. On the eve of all soul’s day, she died peacefully.
But just like how it works in the wild, a young bird replaced Thor.
Three days after she died, a chick broke out of its eggshell at the PEC.
The 28th eaglet to be hatched in captivity at the center, the still unnamed chick is now over a month old. According to Senior Animal Keeper Eddie Juntilla, the bird’s caretaker, the eaglet is healthy and exhibits normal growth and development.
But like a few of the eagles bred in captivity, “Chick 28” was a “breech-chick”, its feet rather than the head are at the egg’s broad end.
The wider end of the egg contains an air sac which provides the first supply of air to the bird when it canal ready breathe on its own and hatch. When the chick runs out of air, it punctures the shell with its beak (pips) to get fresh oxygen.
A “breech chick” pips at the opposite (narrow) end of the egg, and must be assisted.
Eddie helped Chick 28 to give it a head start. One at a time, he carefully tookoff tiny pieces of the shell around the “pip” hole to enlarge it.
Next, it’s a matter of waiting patiently until the chick frees itself from the shell.
There is hope that Chick 28 grows to sexual maturity and hatch chicks of its own. The eaglets bred in captivity can then be released in the wild to help replace eagles dying from both natural and human-causes (shooting and trapping).
“Normal death and birth rates perpetuates all species into the future. When more birds are dying than being born, populations can spiral towards extinction” remarked PEF Executive Director Dennis Salvador.
“Both in captivity and in the wild, one conservation aim is not to disrupt a healthy balance in this fundamental life process” he added.
Eagle Thor left us, but we gained Chick 28.
The King (of birds) is dead, Long live the King! (Jayson Ibanez)
Jayson Ibanez is the Director for Research and Conservation of the Philippine Eagle Foundation.