Danny Ward is still in awe of the bald eagle that hopped through some brush in Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, then rested and spread its wings just a few meters away from him.
“I was amazed. I have no words,” Ward said of the encounter Sunday in the northeastern New Brunswick community.
Ward’s cousin Billy Francis had called to say the bird of prey was in his backyard and not moving. Ward trekked through the snow until he was about six meters from the bird.
The Mi’kmaw elder said he then started a smudging ceremony, prayed, made an offering of tobacco and blood an eagle honor song. As he was singing, another eagle passed by overhead.
When the song ended, Ward said, the bird hopped off a stump and, in a moment captured on video, calmly approached him and a group of family and neighborhood kids that had gathered.
“I spoke to him in Mi’kmaq and then he started making his way over until he was almost six feet away from me,” he said.
Avian flu risk
When the eagle stayed on the ground, however, Francis called the Department of Natural Resources to the scene.
A conservation officer approached and threw a net over the bird to take it away to be checked.
Nick Brown, a spokesperson for the department, confirmed an eagle had been collected in the area and was sent for testing for the avian flu on Prince Edward Island. He said it could take several weeks to process.
WATCH / Bald eagle makes rare, ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ approach
The avian flu has been confirmed in New Brunswick and is a possibility in the bald eagle’s case, as the disease spreads easily to birds of prey. Birds are tested for illness by the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Pam Novak of the Atlantic Wildlife Institute said birds of prey become symptomatic quickly and can catch the disease from a bird carrying it. She said it’s rare for an eagle to approach humans, and speculated on what happened in Esgenoôpetitj.
“It could be a variety of things where, if it is ill, or if it’s spooked somehow, or if it’s near its nesting site and trying to defend its territory,” she said.
The wildlife rehabilitation center in Cookville, about 65 kilometers southeast of Moncton, has stopped taking in new birds now that the avian flu has been confirmed. Calls about injured birds are being referred to a designated avian flu phone line.
‘Once in a lifetime’
Despite a potentially fatal outcome for the eagle, the dozen or so people in Esgenoôpetitj who spotted it are grateful for the experience.
Ward said the eagle is a “powerful” bird in Mi’kmaw culture and flies the highest, taking the prayers of people through the sky to the creator. The bird’s feathers are used for ceremonial purposes.
“To me this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, to see an eagle alive like that and in the wild,” he said.