Hanovi the Bald Eagle

by Chris Sparnicht, Assistant Zookeeper at Bear Hollow Zoo

 Photo: Chris Sparnicht

Photo: Chris Sparnicht

Hanovi the American Bald Eagle came to Bear Hollow Zoo in 2005 because one of his wings does not function properly. He can hop about 6 feet. He remains with us as a native wildlife ambassador, and in return, we take care of him. Hanovi gives our citizens and out-of-state visitors a chance to see close up what kinds of animals live right in our neighborhoods—bald eagles truly live in Athens-Clarke County! A great place to view them is on the Orange Trail at the State Botanical Garden along the Middle Oconee River.

 In the wild Hanovi would eat fish, small fowl, rodents and reptiles, so we feed him a variety of the same types of prey. While bald eagles generally don’t prey on small pets, they can lift up to 4 pounds and will take advantage of domestic fowl or carrion if they are hungry enough. They can also see at a distance four times more sharply than humans.

Their nests can be 13 feet deep, 8 feet across and weigh over a ton, so they are the largest type of bird nest found in North America! Like many of our wild raptors, bald eagles were once threatened by the widespread use of DDT, an agricultural pesticide that caused their egg shells to become weak. Because we no longer use DDT in America, their populations are again flourishing. As of 2007, they are no longer on our federal Endangered or Threatened Species Lists. 

Bald eagles tend to mate for life. However, if one mate passes away, the survivor may seek a new partner. Courtship can involve behavior that looks a bit like an aerial battle. They will dive, lock talons, tumble and free-fall together. 

Mature adult bald eagles have white feathers on their heads and tails, blackish-brown feathers covering the body and wings, and a yellow beak and feet. Their talons are black. However, immature bald eagles are often covered head-to-tail with a mixture of brown and white feathers with a dark, almost-black beak. It may take as many as five or six years for a young bald eagle to fully show its adult plumage.

A little over two years ago, Hanovi had a yard mate, Amazon. While they were not a bonded pair, bald eagles do tend to enjoy the company of others. Amazon was the feisty one, while Hanovi is more timid. Unfortunately, Amazon passed away due to a number of complications, but mostly because she was fairly old. In the next month or so, we are hoping to acquire a new yard mate for Hanovi who, like him, is only able to hop. She will never be able to survive on her own in the wild, so we hope we can make a permanent home for her at Bear Hollow! If things go as planned, we hope to introduce the new young eagle to Hanovi sometime next fall. She will probably still have adolescent plumage when she arrives. We also hope it may be possible for the new young eagle to become a program bird, like some of our other raptors. She would be trained to stand on a glove while a keeper talks about eagles in demonstrations for the public. 

Raptors recognize individual humans. It takes time to develop trust between each new keeper and any specific bird of prey, especially if they come from the wild. When I stop by his exhibit, Hanovi gives me a greeting squawk, likely because he recognizes me as one of the keepers who feeds him. He does not do this for most regular visitors. If we are able to train the newcomer as a program bird, I can only further hope that the new eagle may set an example for Hanovi that coming to the glove of a trusted trainer can mean treats as reward, perhaps deepening a layer of trust between keeper and bird. When you stare a bird in the eye, you can absolutely sense their level of trust and mutual respect.

If Hanovi were able to live in the wild, he would have more opportunity to use his beak and talons. His beak and claws grow continuously, much like human hair, so about once a year, we have to trim his beak, and sometimes his claws, to make sure they don’t grow too long or crooked.  

The name Hanovi means “strong” in Hopi. Bald eagles and their feathers are considered sacred by many North American Native Nations. It’s important to note, however that collecting native bird feathers in the wild is not allowed in the United States, except by institutions like Bear Hollow Zoo, who are licensed to use them for our educational mission.

We at Bear Hollow Zoo hope you’ll stop by to visit Hanovi and our other native wildlife ambassadors!