A bald eagle flies free after being treated by the Alaska Raptor Center over the winter. Now that the spring season has arrived and herring are back in Sitka Sound, the center can start setting rehabilitated raptors free. They released 7 bird of prey on March 16, their first release of the year. (KCAW photo/Enrique Pérez de la Rosa)

March 20 is the official start of spring on our calendars. But for the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka, spring started last Saturday, March 16, when a number of its patients were discharged before an appreciative audience.

Although Alaska Raptor Center takes in injured or starving birds of all kinds during the year, it specializes in birds of prey: eagles, hawks, and owls. To give them a better chance at full recovery in the wild, the center delays the release of its raptors until herring and other prey are back in Sitka Sound and spring is in the air.

During the spring release, staff and volunteers of the Alaska Raptor Center step aside and allow contributing members, donors, and outstanding Sitkans to set the birds free; people like Sitka Tribal Council member Bob Sam, whose father was an Eagle.

We look at animals and birds like human beings,” Sam said, speaking of the significance of eagles in Tlingit culture. “They’re no different than human beings, they have a spirit. Eagles are my father’s people so it’s like releasing my father today.”

Before seeing the actual raptors, Sam and others releasing eagles and hawks don thick leather coats and gloves and are instructed on how to safely handle the raptors using a plush bald eagle. Sam listened attentively to instructions but his joy and excitement was apparent.

“To see an eagle get well and go back to the wild is beautiful. It’s beautiful,” Sam said. “There’s not enough money in the world to have the kind of feeling I have right now. I’m happy.”

Pictured from left to right, Tribal Council member Bob Sam, Yvonne Heitzner and Randy Spurlock were among the community members chosen to release a raptor on Saturday. Above, they receive instruction from Operations Manager Ange Grant on how to hold a bird of pray using a bald eagle plush toy. (KCAW photo/Enrique Pérez de la Rosa)

Meanwhile, inside the center’s clinic, Avian Director Jennifer Cedarleaf works to make sure the birds are ready for release. There’s nothing she and the medical team want more than to release eagles back into the wild. But it’s not as simple as opening the birdcage door.

“When we release an eagle, we want to pick them up and make sure they don’t have any injuries, that they’re healthy enough to get back out there.”

Cedarleaf and her teammates examine the birds before they’re set free to make sure they’re healthy. They make sure birds have recovered from their initial injuries but have also taken well to being held in captivity.

“Keeping birds in captivity, especially larger raptors like eagles, if they don’t have the correct kind of perching they can get something called bumblefoot which is basically like pressure sores on their feet,” Cedarleaf explained. “We won’t know until we have them in our hands so we want to make sure the birds are healthy.”

Holding onto a wild bird to examine it is not easy either, especially once it’s healthy. Cedarleaf says that’s when they have energy to resist and that can be potentially dangerous.

“A big female could have, their feet could be as big as my hand,” she said. “Their feet can be huge. And being a person who has been grabbed by an eagle in the hand before, it hurts!”

Alaska Raptor Center staff cleared seven raptors for release after performing medical examinations in the clinic. (KCAW photo/Enrique Pérez de la Rosa)

Injured birds usually stay at the Raptor Center for about 6 months, unless they have broken bones which take longer to heal. In January, Cedarleaf says the center admitted about 30 starving eagles that struggled to find food when the salmon stopped running in streams. But now in the spring, with herring back on the menu, it’s time to set the raptors free.

While Cedarleaf and her team examine the birds, a crowd of Sitkans gathers in a muskegg where they wait with their cameras at the ready. Executive Director Jen Cross says the first eagle release has become a Sitka tradition to welcome the spring.

“It’s a very exciting time for the entire town. You can sense it, Cross said. “As part of that, ringing in the spring, it just seems so appropriate to release these eagles which are so important and iconic to our community back into the wild where they belong.”

Witnessing the release of a raptor is exciting for most and sometimes overwhelming for those releasing the birds, Cross said.

“Just knowing that this bird was close to death at one point has beaten the odds and is now going to fly free,” she said. “Birds hold a special place in the human heart. When people are taking a small part in sending the bird back to where it belongs, I think that’s quite powerful.

The crowd counts down and falls silent once the eagle takes off, except for the click of their camera shutters.

The Raptor Center released seven birds during their first release and will continue to let raptors soar throughout the summer and fall while herring and salmon are plenty in the wild.