Editor’s Note: This blog was originally posted Aug. 23, 2021.
Dollywood is celebrating a special milestone in 2021 with the 30th anniversary of the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary. Opened in April of 1991, the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary is a 30,000-square-foot aviary that houses the country’s largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles. Along with the sanctuary, Dollywood is home to 14 special and unique birds of prey which can be viewed and admired at the Wings of America show located in Craftsman’s Valley. Eagle Mountain Sanctuary and the Wings of America show are all under the care of the American Eagle Foundation (AEF). I was lucky enough to spend some time with three of AEF’s avian care specialists – Haley Williamson, Macey Everett and Logan Bolden – to gain a little insight into what goes into the care, rehabilitation and training of these special and unique birds. Here are five of the coolest things I learned about these majestic and unique birds that call Dollywood home.
Every Wings of America show is different and unique because all of the birds have the option to preform or not! Even the AEF professionals don’t know which birds will be participating until right before one of their four daily shows. “We do choice-based training where we approach our birds and allow them to make the choice whether or not they would like to participate. We go into their rooms and ask them to ‘step up’ and give them the option of going out in front of the live audience. They will either make the ‘step up,’ or just walk around us waiting for their next meal or snack,” explained Williamson. Most of the birds perform only one to two times while some of their older more-experienced birds will participate in all four Wings of America shows.
It can take more than a year to get a new bird acclimated to its new environment at Dollywood and with the AEF before it starts performing in the Wings of America show. “We start by taking the birds out on stage before the park even opens, just to get them familiar with the surroundings. Then we will introduce one Dollywood host to sit in the audience and build from there. We take our time and make sure the birds are comfortable and ready before we introduce them to a live audience,” Everett told me when I asked about how a bird finds its way from the wild to the stage at Dollywood.
All birds are referred to as Educational Ambassadors by the AEF staff. “These birds are living here with us and are non-releasable, meaning they can’t live on their own in the wild. Since they are here with us, they serve as Educational Ambassadors for their entire species,” Williamson said of the special role that each bird plays in its residency at Dollywood.
The Eagle Mountain Sanctuary is amazing and complex! With a current total of 21 bald eagles, the sanctuary remains the largest collection of non-releasable bald eagles in the country, and there is more to it than just a large mountainside. “The mountain is divided into three different aviaries – Grant and Glenda, our breeding eagles live to the far-left side. The middle aviary houses 10 female bald eagles, and the far-right aviary houses seven male bald eagles. We also have Troy and Brave Spirit in our small aviary beside the show, giving us a total of 21,” Williamson explained. Eagle Mountain Sanctuary is cared for and monitored daily by the AEF staff along with veterinarians from the University of Tennessee as needed. It is important to note that these American Bald Eagles can’t fly and are no longer able to survive in the wild. With more than 30,000 square feet of natural living space, Eagle Mountain Sanctuary provides the best possible living habitat for these beautiful creatures.
These Educational Ambassadors have it made! While Dollywood is known and recognized for its hospitality, food offerings and overall guest experience, the life that these birds live mimics your very best trip to Dollywood and then some. “They get free room service and housekeeping, they get to pick their work schedule, and are loved and adored by hundreds of thousands of Dollywood guest per year,” laughed Bolden. The birds also enjoy daily outside time in the natural-elements-garden located outside of guest view behind their home.