On A Wing and a Prayer - Eagle Aviary Takes Flight With Tribal Traditions

Splurge OKC, July 1st, 2016

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ON A WING AND A PRAYER Eagle Aviary Takes Flight With Tribal Traditions

Jennifer Randell of Shawnee didn’t know if Kyla would ever be a true wild bald eagle.

Kyla, a young female bald eagle, had been kept in a pet kennel for most of her young life in Montana. Eagle rehabilitators, who care for America’s birds who have suffered injuries – mostly due to car accidents – have six months to get an eagle healthy before the bird is either sent to a sanctuary for injured eagles or euthanized.

As a chick, Kyla fell out of her nest, her wings breaking like dried twigs. She would never fly the big skies of Montana, but for two years, she would never leave the pet kennel either. Her wings were calloused and bare from rubbing up against the walls. She couldn’t eat “wild” whole food, vomiting up the hair and bones that most eagles can digest.

“It was pretty emotional,” said Randell, who operates the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Eagle Aviary in Shawnee. “On the way back, I had to sit in front of the kennel door with her or she would cry. She’d scream. When we got into our enclosure, usually when you open that pet kennel, they run out. She didn’t. She just sat in there because she lived in that kennel for two years.”

Kyla would never fly in her life, but Randell and her sister Bree Dunham weren’t sure she could ever be a true eagle at all.

“We just cried. She was so skinny,” Randell said. “She was so scared.”

Many of the majestic birds at the Eagle Aviary operated by the Citizen Potawatomi tribe will never fly again. Most of the 10 bald eagles in the outdoor enclosure were struck by cars, although two suffered gunshot wounds.

Because bald eagles are protected, rehabilitation of injured eagles is a tricky business. But for Randell, caring and saving these animals isn’t just a tribal duty, in her opinion, but her life’s purpose as well. Just as she and her sister save the birds, they, in turn, have saved her soul as well.


When bald eagles are rehabilitated after traumatic injuries, they are sent to zoos or sanctuaries where they can live out their lives in a safe environment. However, if the eagles have no place to go, they are usually euthanized.

As a child, Randell was drawn to the birds. She went on Eagle Watches at area lakes, and her Citizen Potawatomie tribal culture also revered the “messengers” of the skies.

“You think you have your life planned out. I was going to be a graphic designer, travel around,” said Randell. “But when I was in college, my mom decided she’d go to college too. My sister and I and my mom all attended college together. She graduated with a degree in psychology because she wanted to help the tribe.”

In 2007, Randell’s mother died unexpectedly. The Citizen Potawatomie tribe presented Randell and Dunham with an eagle feather during the service, a tradition that honors the elders of the tribe.

“I sat during that service clutching that eagle feather,” said Randell. “I went on hiatus after that, and on one of the eagle watches, I met Gary Siftar, an eagle rehabilitator. He gave a presentation on Native American aviaries, and he said, ‘You tribes have to step up.’”

“I was driving home, and I thought, ‘I want to go to the tribe about starting an aviary,’” she said.

Mere days later, Randell and Dunham were in front of the tribal chairman. They had a 20-minute presentation and all the reasons why the tribe should create a sanctuary. Although she was expecting to have to fight for the idea, the chairman told her to find out what she needed and go do it.

In 2010, the Citizen Potawatomie tribe was awarded a $200,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to build an eagle sanctuary. The tribe stepped up and made a matching grant, and a two-phase aviary was able to built in one fell swoop.

The aviary itself is built in a circle, to reflect a prayer circle. The entrance faces the east, as is traditional, and every angle, decoration and creation reflects the culture of the Potawatomie tribe.

“We opened in 2012 with eight eagles that initially came from the Sia National Aviary in Cyril, which is operated by the Comanches,” said Randell. “There are only seven tribal aviaries, and three of those are in Oklahoma. We did this so we could save the lives of these beautiful animals, but also reconnect our people to living with eagles. Our people used to help Mother Nature. We would keep young eagles for the first few years of their lives, and then let them go. This is traditional.”

And for Randell and Dunham, their lives took flight on a path they never expected.

“We signed a lifetime contract and commitment with the tribe for the aviary,” said Randell.


Today, the CPN Eagle Aviary offers a permanent home to eagles rescued from the wild. The aviary not only offers homes to injured eagles, but provides a source of naturally-molted feathers for tribal members to use for cultural ceremonial use.

“We hand out feathers to tribal members when there is a death or when a veteran comes home,” said Randell. “We are also a training facility for rehabilitators, and now the Choctaws, the Chickasaws and other tribes are considering opening their own aviaries.”

While most bald eagles live 33 years in the wild, captive eagles can live to 50.

So when Kyla came to the CPN Aviary, an eagle who wasn’t an eagle yet, Randell and her sister worried for her future. But, soon, Kyla was running up and down the stream at a special enclosure at the aviary, and a small male eagle had chosen her as his mate.

“Last year, Kyla got her white head, and she began laying eggs, but no fertile eggs,” Randell said. “This year, she laid three eggs, and we thought one was viable. The eggs didn’t hatch, but Kyla was getting food for her egg. She knew she should have a chick. She would sit on her nest and cry. She was mourning.”

The Sia aviary had an idea. It had a 10-day-old tawny eagle chick – a species native to Africa – that was rejected by its mother.

“We said, ‘Let’s try giving Kyla the chick. We took a big chance,” said Randell. “But she came right in and brooded the chick perfectly. She fed the baby. They make wonderful parents.”

Kyla and her adopted chick are a perfect example of coming full circle, Randell said.

“The mission and my goal are to save the individual lives of these eagles and care for them,” said Randell. “This is our life’s work.”

For more information about the CPN Eagle Sanctuary, call 405-275-3121.