On a table of a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation center, Liberty Wildlife, rests a Red-Tailed Hawk. The mature female bird sports a display of rich brown and white plumage. If you saw her circling the sky, you might mistake her for an eagle. Red-Tailed Hawks’ white underbellies gleam in the sun, and end in ombre striped brown feathers with darkened tips. Their tail feathers show as a dusty pink from beneath, and a copper shade of red on the top. Thousands of feathers cover the birds, each equipping them for a life of soaring. Red-Tailed Hawks can live to be up to 25 years old in the wild. But not this Red-Tailed Hawk.
This Red-Tailed Hawk is dead.
Before her euthanization as a result of declining health from West Nile Virus, the bird was taken to the Wisconsin Humane Society Rehabilitation. Crystal Sharlow-Schaefer, WHS Wildlife Supervisor, spoke with the tribal member from the Oneida Nation who brought it in.
“They said, of course, do what you can to rehabilitate the bird, but they wanted to know if she didn’t make it if they could get the carcass for feathers,” Sharlow-Schaefer said.
When the hawk didn’t make it, Sharlow-Schaefer began the process of returning the bird to the tribal member that brought her in.
“I wanted to make sure this tribal member didn’t just get a Red-Tailed Hawk, they got this Red-Tailed Hawk,” Sharlow-Schaefer said.
So Sharlow-Schaefer packaged the carcass on ice and shipped it overnight to Phoenix, Arizona. It arrived lifeless, but preserved, to a small room at Liberty Wildlife.
Her wings will never soar again. Her feathers will never take flight. So now, the hawk will be sent back to Wisconsin and used for a different purpose. Preserving Native American traditions.
Mature Red-Tailed hawk feathers are some of the most commonly requested from Native American tribes from Liberty Wildlife’s Non-Eagle Feather Repository. These feathers, and others from protected birds, are frequently used by tribes for cultural and religious purposes. The problem has been how tribes legally get them.
When Sharlow-Schaefer first looked into giving the bird directly to the tribal member, she was told she had to go through Liberty Wildlife’s process. The process of shipping the bird across the country just to return it might seem baffling, but the reasoning behind the system goes back decades through conservation history.
Robert Mesta, founder of the Liberty Wildlife NEFR and a member of the Yaqui tribe of Sonora, Mexico, and the southwestern U.S, has spent his career in conservation and understands both sides of the system.
“Native Americans having access to feathers and other animal parts is vital to the preservation of cultures. Their beliefs were closely tied to the animals in their natural world. They harvested feathers in a sustainable way,” Mesta said. “If you flash forward in history, you have the colonization of North America, and that changed the whole landscape.”
It was this change of landscape that threatened Native American cultures and the existence of wildlife species across the U.S. As unregulated hunting and trapping boomed, animal populations drastically declined. As a result, in 1918, the United States and Canada signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, making it illegal for anyone to possess, sell, purchase or basically do anything but admire any migratory bird or its parts except with the use of a valid federal permit. The treaty was a response to the overwhelming commercial trade in birds and their feathers in the early 20th century. It worked. The treaty and other wildlife protection laws saved hundreds of species from extinction. But where the laws helped one problem, they ignored another.
Mesta noticed that the laws left Native Americans unconsidered. While laws helped species populations make a comeback, none of them contained any provisions that allowed Native Americans to continue to harvest feathers for religious and ceremonial purposes, like fans, headdresses, and powwows.
“It basically criminalized a tradition that Native Americans practiced from time beginning,” Mesta said.
The establishment of the FWS National Eagle Feather Repository in the early 1970s and the enactment of the eagle feather law made it so Native Americans were no longer forced to give up feathers and traditions. The law provides a bypass to the treaty that allows tribes to obtain protected feathers and continue traditions. Whereas the possession of eagle feathers requires a federal permit, proof of enrollment in a federally recognized tribe is all that is required for the possession of migratory bird feathers and parts. As eagles could finally be legally sourced, tribes still had nowhere to apply for non-eagle parts.
When Mesta retired from a lifelong career in wildlife conservation, he kept busy creating a solution to the problem. In 2010, in partnership with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Mesta established Liberty Wildlife’s Non-Eagle Feather Repository. It remains one of two places in the U.S. where Native Americans can legally obtain bird parts. Now, seven years after the two-year pilot program began, Liberty Wildlife finds the need for feathers never stops.
In the past 3 years combined, Liberty filled requests for roughly 1,285 applications. Mare VanDyke makes sure Liberty keeps up with demand, handling many of the day to day operations when it comes to helping applicants complete their request form and filling the orders that come in as quickly as possible. She says a major problem is lack of awareness and knowledge about how the program works, partially due to the remoteness of many places that request feathers.
“They’re basically living off the technology grid.” VanDyke said, “I shipped last week to ‘house number one off milepost 281 off dirt road 264 with a yellow truck in the driveway’.”
Sometimes when VanDyke hears someone is having trouble completing an application, she’ll mail one to them with a red feather stamp to know where they came from. She gets calls from members sitting in libraries with the Liberty website pulled up and walks them through the process. Though the structure of applying could seem complicated, VanDyke is always ready to help. Plus, the connections from an established source like Liberty come in handy for donations. When a man requested a Magnificent Frigate bird, a large seabird found on the coasts that rarely lands and spends most of its life soaring over the seas, VanDyke laughed.
“Oh, we’re never gonna see that out here,” she said. So instead, VanDyke gave him the names of rehabilitation centers in Florida. When the man called one in the Florida Keys, the center just happened to have a Magnificent Frigate bird that had died, waiting on ice in the freezer. And they were willing to ship it to Liberty.
“As soon as we got it, of course, I have to show it to everyone because you don’t get to see that,” VanDyke said. “And then I shipped it right back out to him.”
Tribal members on average wait about two weeks from submitting their application. The quick turnaround time is thanks to the hours VanDyke puts into the service. The system works.
“People don’t really have to wait as long for their feathers if we have the donations,” VanDyke said. “And if we can continue to fund the shipping.”
The cost of shipping is one of the biggest issues that the NEFR in order to continue to serve Native communities. The federal government will pay the postage for eagles to be shipped, but non-eagles don’t get the same deal. Rehabilitation centers budget carefully to stretch non-profit funds. For a large facility, this comes out to between $2,000 to $2,500 a year. A hefty price tag for just postage.
“If they’re getting donations, they’re not going to use it towards birds that pass, they’re going to use it to keep other things alive,” VanDyke said.
Brooke Warrington, a current natural resources specialist, noticed this need during her time volunteering at a nature center in Maryland. Since then, she established Kestrel Post, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping state and federal resource agencies, zoos, rehabilitators, research facilities, universities, falconers, and any other legal source donate bird carcasses to be used for NEFR purposes.
“It all depends on the size of the facility and how many birds they’re sending. When I was just sending feathers it was honestly pretty cheap,” Warrington said.
Initially, she would pay under $10 to ship molted feathers in manilla envelopes, but the price goes up significantly when sending a carcass. For an eagle box that fits about four birds, it costs about $200 to overnight ship. And overnight shipping is a must. Sending carcasses across America could get grisly if done improperly.
“The idea of shipping a carcass to an apartment in mid-city Baltimore in the middle of the summer,” VanDyke laughed. “No porch pirate is going to want to take that.”
The work that may seem macabre to some saves the lives of a carcass’s living counterpart. Before NEFRs were established, tribes used to be able to request non-eagle feathers from the national eagle feather repository. When that service ended in the 1990s, Native Americans were forced to collect bird parts naturally, creating an even higher black market demand.
Joe Early is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region Native American Liaison. As a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, he recognized the need for feathers from relatives and other southwest tribes, Early asked around about trying to get access. When Robert Mesta called one day to ask about Liberty Wildlife feathers to tribal members that came in and asked for them, Early worked with a team to get a permit. Now, Early has seen first hand the ecological difference that NEFRs make.
“This has put a dent in the illegal acquisition,” Early said. “It should deter tribes and folks from going out and shooting birds or buying them when now there’s a legal way to do it.”
In total, Liberty has shipped carcasses and feathers to 4,000 Native Americans in 47 states. That’s 4,000 birds that weren’t killed or bought illegally. That number could easily increase as the program grows.
Permit Branch Chief Eldon Brown of the FWS Migratory Bird Permit team notes future success is all in building awareness.
“The bigger challenge is educating the greater public,” Brown said. Wildlife centers don’t always know about the option of sending expired birds to a NEFR like Liberty Wildlife. Instead, carcasses are thrown out or cremated. Many Native Americans don’t know a legal option exists at all.
“It seems every two or three years, there’s an undercover case where unfortunately tribal members are involved,” Early said. “Some of it’s just ignorance. Folks are buying this stuff culturally and trading and bartering.”
Some traders try to cash in on demand through poached birds. A 2018 case saw six defendants use bird traps with electronic bird call broadcast systems powered with solar panels to capture birds. Migratory birds, especially rare or popular species, can fetch potentially thousands of dollars for poachers and traders. Liberty Wildlife sends their birds for free, and plans to do so for generations to come.
“The pilot was really not knowing how this would and could be shaped,” Brown said. Almost a decade later, and kinks worked out, the Liberty Wildlife NEFR continues to impact every person involved, from donor to recipient.
“We’ve stepped outside the box and proven that this can be done,” Early said.
After the Red-Tailed Hawk was shipped back to Wisconsin, the tribal recipient thanked Sharlow-Schaefer with an invitation to the bird’s final moments.
“They invited me for the feather removal and I had never seen that before,” Sharlow-Schaefer said. “That was so meaningful to see that specimen full circle and see how important it was culturally.”