John and Dale Stokes of Wings to Soar will present the program, in which audience members can interact with birds of prey. Shows are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. For more about the program, visit the Reflection Riding website.
Mirror editor Ferris Robinson is impressed with Osceola, a one-winged bald eagle. Here is her story, which was printed in the March 2016 paper.
by Ferris Robinson
Majestic bald eagles are meant to soar and belong in the sky. The national symbol of the United States of America, these birds glide across the wide-open sky at up to 44 miles per hour and can live almost 40 years in the wild. Eagles’ talons can exert almost 100 pounds of pressure per square inch; humans’ hands exert 80 pounds of pressure per square inch. Their eyesight is the keenest in the animal kingdom, four to eight times stronger than that of a human.
Eagles were only recently taken off the endangered species list, but it is still a felony to shoot a bald eagle, punishable with up to a $250,000 fine and a two-year prison sentence. However, these resplendent birds are still hunted by stupid people, as Osceola can attest.
Osceola was found in a field in Arkansas by two rabbit hunters. Terribly wounded, he was hopping over the ground, trying to fly despite the pain from his dangling left wing. The hunters called the game warden, as well as John Stokes, who ran the Raptor Rehab program at the Memphis Zoo. After surgery, the wing not only failed to heal, but became so infected the life of the bird was threatened. The wing was amputated, and the bird healed beautifully.
Bonding with Mr. Stokes, Osceola became a star in Mr. Stoke’s raptor education shows in the Mid-South and beyond. Folks were awed by the magnificent creature, but saddened that he could no longer fly. An avid hang glider, Mr. Stokes came up an ingenious idea.
“I had been a hang glider pilot for about nine years. Maybe I could construct a harness for him and take him flying with me. Pilots took their dogs with them, why not an eagle?”
The idea may have been ingenious, but the implementation was problematic. First off all, Mr. Stokes was transferred to another wildlife facility shortly after his brainstorm. Determined to continue his efforts with Osceola, he ensured the bird was moved to the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation, where Mr. Stokes joined him a year later, in early 1986. Beloved by all exposed to him, the bald eagle’s fame grew, and this honorary citizen of Nashville, a titled bestowed on him by the governor, ultimately appeared on “Good Morning, America.” The famous eagle’s photo gallery includes pictures with Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Bill Murray and Cindy Crawford.
Determined to get the bird back in the air via hang gliding, Mr. Stokes began the arduous process of logistics. First he contracted a harness-maker in Arkansas to engineer the harness. Three tries later, just when it looked like the perfect device had been created, the money for the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation dried up, and hang gliding with injured eagles was not a priority.
Resilient, Mr. Stokes contacted Dollywood and the Foundation’s birds were relocated there and housed in an outstanding facility. However, Osceola was yet to wear his special harness, which was determined to be lacking. Matt Taber at Lookout Mountain Flight Park had a new harness constructed and it fit the bird like a glove.
“The next problem was to isolate his 2 1/2-inch talons from my harness and me. I didn’t not want his talons scraping my harness or him grabbing something and becoming entangled,” Mr. Stokes said.
He invented a foot shield, but when the bird’s foot snagged on the shield, it panicked. They finally designed a bungee system that worked, but there was yet another snag. They had to get permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was an arduous process.
After a few more glitches with the harness system, Osceola was finally ready to fly. Hovering inches from Mr. Stokes’ head, Osceola moved his gigantic talons as they were in the air, making Mr. Stokes a little nervous. “As we started to gain altitude and the ground dropped away, he settled down. He began looking around, perhaps realizing he was in the air again,” Mr. Stokes said.
After 13 years, Osceola was back in his element, soaring high in the sky. He turned his head in every direction, surely taking in the mountains and valley and river, training his eagle eye on prey. They flew over a pair of red-tailed hawks and Osceola was transfixed, watching them intently as the hawks flew past them. Osceola moved his talons as the glider turned, guiding his flight innately.
Osceola is the only eagle that is also a hang glider, and John Stokes and his wife, Dale Kernahan, co-directors of Wings to Soar, a raptor educational program, take him all over the country to raise awareness for these magnificent birds. Clearly, Osceola is both resilient and determined, not unlike his human, John Stokes.