Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Learning to Fly

The Leslie Science and Nature Center's bald eagle. (Photos by Lon Horwedel)

Francie Krawcke couldn’t help but smile as she pulled out her favorite pair of orange-handled Fiskars cutting sheers in the back room of Leslie Science and Nature Center’s Critter House and began to slice open the belly of a dead baby rat. With the precision of a surgeon, Krawcke removed the rat’s stomach and intestines and then cut up the remainder of the rodent into nice, clean cubes that she put into a plastic cup.


It’s hard to imagine smiling as you disembowel a baby rat, but Krawcke, the center’s 40-year-old raptor specialist, loves her job, and she knows that bait is a vital key to her ultimate goal - she wants to teach the center’s 5-year-old female bald eagle how to fly.

“She won’t eat the stomach or intestines.” Krawcke said, shrugging her shoulders. “She doesn’t like fish either. Figure that one out?”

Getting food ready for the eagle.

It sounds silly – a fully mature, healthy female bald eagle not liking fish or knowing how to fly, but the center’s eagle is not your ordinary eagle. She is what’s called an imprint, meaning not only does she not know how to fly, she doesn’t even know she’s an eagle.

The eagle came to the center after falling out of her nest in Wisconsin at three weeks of age, breaking both a leg and her right wing in the process. The eaglet recuperated at a Wisconsin raptor rehab center for six months, but things got a little tricky when the fully healed eagle was put back into a cage with other adult bald eagles.

“She attacked them!” Krawcke said. “She didn’t see herself as an eagle anymore, she thought she was one of us.”

Knowing there was no way the bird could be kept with other bald eagles, or be released back into the wild, Krawcke decided to take the bird in at the Leslie Nature and Science Center, and that’s where the eagle has spent, and will spend, the remainder of her life - a life that could well reach, and maybe even exceed 50-years.

It’s those 50-years years in captivity that present a bit of a problem for Krawcke.

“It’s important for me to find a successor because I won’t be working here quite that long.” Krawcke says jokingly.

But Krawcke’s smile fades and you can see the concern in her eyes when she thinks about it, because she knows the next few years are critical, both for her, and the eagle, if the eagle is to have a quality life.

This year, in particular, has been a real challenge fro Krawcke. There’s been a lot more at play than just trying to teach the bird how to fly. Krawcke also uses the eagle for educational programs, and up until recently she could always count on another handler, Leanne Chadwick, to help her out. But that all changed when Chadwick injured her knee while skiing this winter and wasn’t able to handle the eagle for several months. When Chadwick was healthy enough to resume handling duties, the eagle spurned her. Feelings were hurt, but the eagle had made up her mind - she will only let Krawcke handle her now.

To further add to the drama, the eagle also has reached sexual maturity, and with the hormonal changes that have taken place because of that, her behavior has become much like that of a teenager, causing frequent power plays between her and Krawcke.

“She’s gotten much stronger physically, and I can tell that.” Krawcke said. “She’s trying to assert her dominance like she would in the wild, and I have to continually reassert mine.”

Krawcke admits it must be hard for the eagle because her natural bird instincts are constantly clashing with her humanness. Krawcke can sense the confusion in the bird, but she knows that she also can’t look at the eagle as anything more than a wild animal. It’s one of the reasons Krawcke hasn’t given the eagle a name and it’s something that’s extremely difficult for Krawcke, given her relationship with the bird.

“She is a wild animal.” Krawcke emphasizes. “I need to be prepared for that every time I work with her… I need to be prepared for her feet. When people working with wild animals get hurt, it’s because they did something wrong, not the animal.”

The relationship between the two is very much mother-daughter like. Krawcke is very protective of the eagle, and the eagle has become very dependent on Krawcke as well, making it tough for Krawcke to be away for long.

“Most of the birds here at the center, if I were to leave they wouldn’t notice. But she would notice.” Krawcke said. “The longest I’ve been away from her is two weeks. She yells, and she gets bitey … with me it’s more of a nibble than a bite, but she always comes.”

The eagle nibbles on Krawcke's face - her way of communicating.

Krawcke constantly walks an emotional tight rope when she is out with the bird in public. She readily admits one of her biggest fears is that the eagle will become a nothing more than a show piece.

“I want people to see her fly, but I have a big fear about becoming a circus attraction.” Krawcke said. “I don’t want it to be a joke. I want to excite people. I want people here in Ann Arbor to see what they’re sharing the world with.”

Teaching the eagle to fly has been a dream for Krawcke since the day the center adopted the bird. She’ll be the first to tell you she’s always been “enthralled with the idea of flight,” but it’s not like Krawcke could just open the eagle’s cage and things would automatically happen. There were, and still are, plenty of obstacles.

As strange as it may seem, fear of flying was one of them. The eagle wasn’t all that keen on the idea at first. Despite little perch-hopping jaunts in her outdoor enclosure, the eagle had never really attempted, or been taught to fly … or land.

“She needed to figure that out.” Krawcke said. “At first she’d slam into the perch because she didn’t know how to flare out her wings to slow down – but she’s getting better!”

Coming in for a perfect landing during a training session.

The ultimate goal for Krawcke is to train the eagle to soar, (and, of course, come back) but her more immediate goal was to get the eagle to fly several hundred yards in front of a large throng of people for the center’s annual fundraiser (Mayfly) in late May.

Using the bait and a series of perches, Krawcke was able to get the eagle to fly short lengths from perch to perch for her food. Gradually, Krawcke increased the distance between the perches.

During training, most of the eagle’s flights took place only a few feet off the ground, often flying so low her wingtips would brush the grass as she made her way across the large field at the center where she trained – that is when they were lucky enough to train. The horrendous spring weather made it almost impossible to fly on most days, and when the weather did cooperate by being warm and dry, high crosswinds were usually at play.

On one particular afternoon, Krawcke’s dream of seeing the eagle soar turned into a nightmare when the eagle got hung up in one of those crosswinds while she was trying to land. A strong updraft took the eagle skyward and started pushing her off the science center grounds and across Traver Road.

“Her eyes were huge! Krawcke said. “She was so nervous.”

Krawcke was equally frightened. “My fear was she’d land in the road and get hit by a car, or land in a yard and get attacked by a dog.” She said.

Luckily, none of that happened. After drifting across the street, the eagle was able to land in the backyard of a neighboring house. Once Krawcke tracked the bird down and saw that the eagle was safely perched on a tree branch too skimpy for launching, she was able to relax, although they never again trained on a windy day.

The episode did little to deter the two. Krawcke could sense the eagle’s fear of flying was now being replaced with confidence and excitement.

“When we take her out she looks all around, she is very curious … she looks forward to it and when she doesn’t get it, she lets me know.” Krawcke said. “She’s always confident. She always wants to work.”

When Mayfly finally arrived, Krawcke was excited, but nervous – a month’s worth of showers had been replaced by blue skies and warm temperatures for most of the day, but now the sky was darkening once again and it was starting to sprinkle.

Krawcke knew that flying in the rain wasn’t something the eagle would be too keen on, so a little ahead of schedule, Krawcke headed to the grassy field with the eagle as the Mayfly patrons followed. Umbrellas began popping up in the crowd as Krawcke gave a brief explanation as to what they were about to witness.

With four perches set up in a box formation roughly 50-yards apart, Krawcke wasted no time starting the flight demonstration. Without any prodding, the eagle hopped off Krawcke’s well-padded handling arm and landed on the nearest perch. Before Krawcke could even place the chunk of rat meat on the next perch, the eagle was off flying across the field. It was a good beginning.

Flying so low her wingtips brush the grass.

The eagle then would fly diagonally to its next perch where it made a perfect landing. Once again, before Krawcke could place the bait on perch number three, the eagle was off and flying, this time parallel to the crowd, where her majestically powerful wing strokes were fully put on display. Another perfect landing later, she turned on her perch and then launched herself diagonally away from the crowd to perch number four. Now she was directly across from the crowd, but this time she paused a while. The rain was falling harder now as she sat on her perch with water beading up on her wings and dripping off her beak.

Waiting in the rain with her back to the crowd.

Maybe this was good enough. Maybe she was done for the night.

At the final landing perch in front of the crowd, Krawcke called for the bird by waving her arm and whistling. The eagle seemed not to notice or care. Again, Krawcke called. Again, the eagle sat silently across the field in the rain. There was no anxiety in the crowd, they didn’t know what to expect, but Krawcke wanted this night to go off without a hitch, and now Mother Nature was trying to have her say.

For the third time, Krawcke raised her arm and whistled for the bird. This time the eagle perked up and turned around on her perch, and then launched herself toward the audience. The final 50-yard flight drew gasps from the crowd as the eagle flared out her wings, all 7-feet of them, to slow down before making another perfect landing.

The appreciative crowd, most of them donors to the science center, erupted with applause. The rain, which was falling even harder now, didn’t seem to matter anymore as Krawcke and the eagle put on the flight demonstration for the second time with perfect precision - several months of hard work weren’t about to be derailed by a little precipitation.

When they finished the second demonstration, Krawcke put the eagle back on her arm and marched up the grassy hill to the center wearing the same smile that never seems to leave Krawcke’s face, whether she’s working with the eagle, or any of the raptors at the science center. She is proud of what she has accomplished with the eagle and the other birds at the center.

“This is exactly what I wanted to do.” Krawcke says of her life’s work.

Krawcke and the eagle after a successful Mayfly.

Krawcke knows that what she is doing is both physically and mentally good for the bird, but she is also astounded and impressed and curious about the eagle every day she’s around her.

“There is nothing frivolous in their life like we have in ours.” Krawcke said. “Everything about them is about survival … and I admire that.”

Thanks to Krawcke, a crowd of donors standing in the rain; now admired it too.

Note: To see a gallery of images of Francie and the eagle, check out this link on my photo website:


  1. Awesome story Lon. Every time I see the bird, at Skyline games or in Skyline team pictures, it amazes me even more. Great pics.

  2. Thanks Pete. it is a pretty amazing bird.

  3. And you are a pretty amazing writer, Lon. Don't short yourself. I felt as if I was in the crowd watching the display... I even shook my umbrella because I thought it may be wet!

  4. What a great story, Lon, I'm going to send it to all my friends, particularly the ones in the U. P. Glad to see you out doing things like this.

  5. Wonderful to see her doing so well. Thanks for giving her a great life.