Shagoie Watha

Bald eagle Shagoie Watha is sprinkled with water to keep cool in her controlled habitat at the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. (Dylan Ray photo)

The aquarium’s newest residents are adjusting to their new home, and visitors have been flocking to the exhibit to learn a bit about bald eagles.

“The eagles are adjusting to their new home. To help them settle in, please speak softly and move calmly,” reads a sign before visitors approach the eagle exhibit.

Visitors took the message to heart. As they walked through the doors to the eagle habitat recently, visitors whispered in awe as they watched the birds of prey.

The warning signs are just one of many ways aquarium staff is making the raptors feel at home.

The eagle exhibit opened to the public July 4 and features two flightless bald eagles, an adult female, named Shagoie Watha, and a juvenile female, named Uwohali.

The habitat, Eagle Landing, is 3,000 square feet, with large perches and a rock pond. It was designed by staff to meet the raptors’ needs.

“It’s maintained pretty stringently to make sure that it’s clean and appropriately textured, which helps to keep their feet healthy,” said aviculturist Amanda Goble, who is responsible for the eagle’s care. “We go in and we do maintenance on the habitat every day. It’s a bonus that it’s absolutely stunning to look at.”

Ms. Goble said multiple members of the aquarium’s staff are involved in maintaining the habitat.

“It takes a lot of different areas of the aquarium to maintain it,” she said. “The ground staff and the horticulturalist are knocking it out of the park.”

Ms. Goble said there is a morning routine to making sure the eagles are cared for in preparation for their day.

“I start my day by starting behind the scenes and saying hi to the eagles,” she said, “but then we have to come out here and check this habitat.”

Ms. Goble said sometimes visitors drop things into the exhibit. She makes sure there is nothing in the habitat that could harm the raptors. Since the eagle habitat is outdoors, making sure the eagles do not get too hot is essential to their care, as well.

Staff installed a misting system to help keep the raptors cool.

“You’ll see them sometimes stand in the cooling mist and they’ll leave when they feel cool enough,” Ms. Goble said.

The aviculturist is constantly working with the birds to meet their needs.

“Last week I got their personal weigh scale. It’s super important and it’s a trained behavior for them just to go up to it and step and stand,” she said. “They’re both total aces at that. They got really good at it. The adult learned it in two sessions, which is insane behaviorally. They are incredible birds.”

Ms. Goble said the training is an important part of the animals’ care.

“She (Shagoie Watha) participates so well in her training, I think, because of the focus on choice and control, because it’s shifted her from having things done to her all the time, which is appropriate for a bird in rehab. That’s what we have to do to keep them alive, and now she’s in a situation where my focus is not doing stuff to her but doing stuff with her,” Ms. Goble said. “Teaching her the skills, both of them, skills that they need to do things on their own…”

One way Ms. Goble works with the eagles is through behavioral toys, including dog toys.  

“You might recognize these as dog toys, well they serve a behavioral purpose for eagles,” she said. “The behaviors that they’re adapted to do they still need to be doing here in human care. There are some behaviors that we can’t encourage, like flight, but a lot of keeping them mentally stimulated and physically active is still extremely important. This (dog toys) is just one cool way that you can do that.”

As well as the eagle habitat, Ms. Goble maintains the eagles’ behind-the-scenes enclosure, which has a cabinet full of enrichment and training gear.

“That’s how important it is to us,” Ms. Goble said. “It’s a huge priority for our animals because it increases their welfare so much.”

The behind-the-scenes enclosure is important for the raptors, as they are nonflighted. Much like the outdoor habitat, the behind-the-scenes enclosure is made specifically for the eagles’ needs.

“One of the things is that this doesn’t look super pretty, but it is sturdy, it is safe, it is easily cleanable,” Ms. Goble said. “Hygiene is super important for all animal care, including the eagles.

“It is able to meet their needs in the same way the outside habitat meets their needs. For me, seeing them when I invite them to come back in here, seeing them run inside because they are going to enjoy their time in here is awesome,” she continued.  

Another important tool is the eagle glove.

“This is not for medical restraint. It’s for cooperative step up,” Ms. Goble said. “We wear these anytime we have a bird on the fist or whenever we are carrying a bird. Teaching them that is really useful because it lets us carry them from place to place if we ever need that, but it also gives us a super close look at their body and especially their feet.

“With birds of prey, the feet are a really specialized body part,” she continued.

After she cleans the habitat and makes sure the eagles have an appropriate amount of water, Ms. Goble prepares their food for the day.

“Good nutrition is fundamental to good health. That’s true for animals just like it is for humans,” Ms. Goble said.

The eagles are fed what is called a species-appropriate diet. In the wild, eagles mainly eat mammals and fish.

“In that, that includes a significant portion of scavenging, not just hunting,” Ms. Goble said. “A lot of people don’t realize what a big deal scavenging is in a bald eagle’s diet.”

Ms. Goble said the eagles’ diet at the aquarium mostly consists of mammals and fish, including things like rats, rabbits and fish such as trout and salmon. The amount of food the eagles are fed is determined by their weight.

Ms. Goble said it is important the eagles get the chance to consume all parts of the fish or mammal.

“It’s really important that they have the option to consume all parts of the animal because that’s how their bodies are designed to work,” she said.

After the eagles’ meal is prepared, Ms. Goble continues her daily task of taking care of the other birds that live at the aquarium.

Those who are interested in observing the eagles can do so during the aquarium’s operating hours, which are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

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