Navajo Nation Zoo To Provide More Eagle Feathers

By Laurel Morales
June 11, 2015

Native Americans hold eagle feathers sacred and for centuries have used them in traditional ceremonies. Only members of federally recognized tribes are allowed to possess the feathers. But it’s not easy to obtain feathers legally. The Navajo Nation Zoo is trying to change that.

Laurel Morales
Navajo Nation Zookeeper Lionel Tsosie says he keeps an eagle feather in his vehicle to protect him.

Zookeeper Lionel Tsosie checked on the four golden eagles that live at the Navajo Nation Zoo. The birds sat quietly on a branch of a juniper tree as a gentle rain darkened their wings.

"They are considered the first people in our culture in our teachings," Tsosie said. "They’re awesome birds. I love them." 

Tsosie said Navajo people use the eagle feathers to celebrate an accomplishment like graduation, to protect themselves from harm and to pray.

"Eagle feathers are highly prized and a lot more sacred than the other feathers," Tsosie said. "The eagle can fly up into the heavens. And they want their prayers to be heard and taken up that far."

Laurel Morales
David Mikesic checks a red tailed hawk for injuries. All of the more than 100 animals at the Navajo Zoo have been injured or orphaned on the Navajo Nation.

A 1940 federal law protects eagles and their feathers. Today, you can be fined up to $250,000 or sent to prison for up to two years for taking, harming or possessing an eagle.

Until recently, if a Navajo medicine man wanted to get an eagle feather legally, he would have to apply to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Then after several months, the federal repository would send the feathers. It takes up to five years for a whole bird.  

"There is a large demand," said David Mikesic, a zoologist at the Navajo Nation Zoo. "There’s a long waiting list for those birds and feathers."

Mikesic has worked on the reservation for 20 years and he’s seen birds injured or killed for their feathers. 

"The latest eagle came in three years ago," Mikesic said. "She had a gunshot wound to one of the wings and it was unrepairable."

And there’s a demand for the feathers outside the reservation. Mikesic said on the black market a seller could get up to $1,500 for a tail fan.

"That’s a significant amount of money," Mikesic said. "That would require basically killing the bird. If you remove all of the tail feathers from an eagle, it’s not going to be able to fly and if it can’t fly, it can’t hunt. And if it can’t hunt, it can’t eat and it will die."

"Unfortunately, people can make a lot of money off of that," said Joe Early, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tribal liaison for the Southwest.  

National Eagle Repository
Adult and juvenile Golden Eagle feathers.

"You see European collectors big into authentic western and Native American apparel," Early said. "Something illegally sold here may sell for tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars overseas." 

Fish and Wildlife is trying to crack down on the problem. One way is to make the feathers more easily available and to track them. So they’ve worked with tribes to help them start six eagle aviaries, including one at the Navajo Nation Zoo.

"We’ve provided upwards of 500 feathers," Mikesic said. "And these are feathers that are naturally shed. We don’t pull them from the birds. We want to make sure all Navajo people that need or want a feather can obtain one legally."

Mikesic said they photograph and track every feather that leaves the zoo. And so far he said none have been linked to the black market.

The Navajo Nation Zoo recently received a federal grant to build a bigger aviary to house more eagles to provide more feathers. 

They plan to break ground in the next few weeks and complete construction by fall.