MIDWAY — Once in a while, bald eagles visit Chicago.
They don't always make it out alive.
On Sept. 28, 2015, Mike Kuper, owner of K-Three Welding at 4840 S. Central Ave. — less than a mile from Midway International Airport — met a bald eagle in a way he could have never imagined.
The work day seemed normal enough. Then his shop foreman walked in the door with what seemed like absurd news: There’s a dead bald eagle outside your office.
“No,” Kuper remembers saying. “Not a bald eagle.”
The weld boss walked outside his shop to see for himself. There it was:
“Wow,” Kuper said. “That’s pretty odd.”
Though bald eagles are becoming more common in Illinois, it’s pretty unusual for them to make their way into Cook County — let alone into one of Chicago’s gritty, South Side industrial areas.
Parked nearby, two men on a road trip to Kansas City had witnessed the eagle’s demise. Kuper talked with the men, who pulled over when the bird hit the ground, and heard the harrowing story.
Flying over Central Avenue, the bald eagle tried to land on a stretch of power lines. As the majestic, 10-pound bird touched down, it was electrocuted.
It landed on the parking lot asphalt below the lines, its feathers blackened from the fatal jolt.
Kuper's guys surrounded the bald eagle with safety cones and covered the corpse with a box.
The eagle’s death disturbed Kuper, who had just received news he wouldn’t get a new lease on his weld shop.
“I thought, ‘This could be the sign that says it’s time to move, Mike,’” said Kuper, who later moved his business. “The eagle died.”
He snapped photos:
"Cities are dangerous for a wild animals," Magle said. "[But] their natural habitats are dangerous as well.”
Kuper's wife called Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. A few hours later, volunteer bird rescuer Denise Verret arrived.
She'll never forget the day the eagle died.
"Our first inclination was that they didn't know what they had," said Verret, a Louisiana native who moved to Chicago 15 years ago.
They must have found a hawk, Verret thought. It couldn't really be an eagle.
She saw the eagle and felt like crying.
"It shocked me, because it's such a beautiful bird," Verret said, "and it was such an unnatural death."
The lethal electrical surge charred the eagle's talons and feet. With gloved hands, Verret gently wrapped the bird and later stored the remains in a freezer.
Annette Prince, Bird Collision's director, thinks the eagle found its way to the South Side power line while searching for food and water, or — in scientific lingo — "ranging."
On Oct. 3, the frozen eagle ended up at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, where animal specialists reported the finding to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Once an endangered species, the nationally treasured bird is still protected by the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits anyone from harming or disturbing the birds.
The federal agency sent the center a shipping label with the address of the National Eagle Repository near Denver, Colorado, where the eagle’s feathers and body parts would be harvested.
To many folks, this is where the bald eagle’s afterlife takes an unexpected turn.
For centuries, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have used eagle feathers for spiritual and cultural ceremonies. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened the National Eagle Repository to sell them the carcasses, parts and feathers of eagles for religious rituals.
When it comes to the law, it would be ill-advised for just anyone to mess with a bald eagle — dead or alive.
Get caught with a feather plucked from a deceased eagle and no permit, and you can face a fine of $100,000 and up to one year in jail.
Kuper, the man who reported the downed bald eagle on Chicago's South Side, had no intentions of messing around. He had heard about the power they hold in Native American circles.
Some tribes consider eagles sacred messengers that travel between gods and humans.
Kuper even reached out to a friend who knows a thing or two about Native American lore with a question about the incident that unfolded outside his office:
"What does it mean if a bald eagle dies in front of your place?"
He never got an answer back.
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