Konnor Kivimagi helps Buck tell about Was'aka's strong talons.
Konnor Kivimagi helps Buck tell about Was'aka's strong talons.
The hard truth: Bald bird eats cute little bunnies.

"What makes him an eagle?" asked Buck, a National Eagle Center handler, as he held bald eagle Was'aka - whose name means "strength" in Dakota. He and the bird stood at the front of the Chatfield Public Library's basement meeting room, overlooking nearly 80 children who wanted to learn about Was'aka. The special eagle program was part of the library's children's summer reading program.

The children named characteristics such as the eagle's strong talons and "white head," which, according to the handler, takes five or six years to develop.

"When people first came to the New World, eagles were very abundant, and the settlers called them 'bald-headed eagles'," Buck told the children.

What Was'aka and his fellow eagles eat became a topic of fascination, as one small audience member asked, "When they eat, do they eat the bones, or do they throw them up?"

Buck replied, "They digest the bones, teeth, skulls, just about anything, because they have a very powerful digestive system. Their vomit is called a 'casting,' which is a pellet, so if they eat a rabbit, they digest the bones and all, but they might throw up a pellet of other things."

That's when the "cute" caught the children's objection and Buck countered, "What? So if you're some ugly animal, are you less or more important than a cute little rabbit? Does it matter to an eagle whether its lunch is cute or not?"

He continued by explaining that eagles like to eat rabbits, but they like to live around water, too. They prefer fish, but they're also opportunistic predators. "They will eat dead deer, things along the road."

Playing to the kids' humor, Buck shared this little joke. "Two turkey vultures board a plane carrying bags, and the flight attendant asks them, 'Would you like to check those bags?' and the vultures answer, 'NO, this is CARRION!'"

So Buck added, eagles will eat road kill, or carrion. Eagles in the wild are not picky, but if they've been living with humans, they can be picky eaters.

Buck pointed out that they're also "picky poopers" - a fact that fascinated the youngsters completely. "Have you ever seen an eagle's nest? A word to describe its size is 'BIG'," Buck said. "One nest was nine feet wide and 20 feet deep - you could hide a SMART car in there. Eagles have a six-foot wingspan, and they like to keep a clean nest, nice neat areas, so they can shoot their poop up to six feet. That's right, they can projectile poop!"

The awe in the audience was palpable.

Feathers were the next subject of discussion after the poop fascination waned - Buck explained, "It's illegal to have an eagle feather, so I have to count Was'aka's feathers. He has 7,000 feathers, and if he loses one, I have to keep track of it. When he starts molting, that's a lot of counting, but if he loses feathers, they're sent to Denver to an agency that cleans them and clears them for Native Americans to use in their tribal dress."

That said, a question came from the audience regarding how Was'aka became a National Eagle Center eagle since it is unlawful for someone to own a bald eagle.

The handler explained, "His left eye is blind - he was found starving on the ground in Florida, and he was taken to a raptor hospital where they found that he had a tumor on his eye."

The eagle is one of five currently sheltered at the Wabasha eagle education center, where visitors from across the nation come to learn about bald eagles, America's national bird and cute little rabbit-eater.

Buck closed the presentation with an invitation for the children to stand with Was'aka and have their picture taken...but just close enough to avoid his projection system.