Wildlife Prairie Park eagles spread their wings in new digs

Jewels Phraner

It was like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," but instead of hundreds of volunteers building a house for a family in need, it was two bald eagles who got the new digs.

After nearly a year of construction, Tuesday marked the opening of the Wildlife Prairie State Park's newest exhibit for its two bald eagle residents.

The exhibit quadrupled the space for the eagles, gave them an indoor storm shelter and included a water feature.

"Eagles love water," Park General Manager Linda Prescott said. "And they have never had a water feature before."

The new shelter space also will be used as a retreat for the birds during wintry weather or for veterinary exams, she said.

"Our male eagle has allergies," Prescott added. "So it gives them a place to be inside - away from the gnats - but still be on display."

A park employee had to coax the birds into their new home, but the pair didn't seem timid about exploring and soon focused their attention on finding a chipmunk that scampered just outside the bars of the cage.

Mostly built by volunteers, the structure cost about $63,000, which was donated to the park from Creve Coeur Club of Peoria, Wildlife Prairie Shops Inc. and the Forest Park Foundation.

Prescott said this is just the first phase of projects that will update the park's exhibits.

"We want to put a new owl exhibit in next, and then we'll move on to the hawk's exhibit," she said.

Bill Rutherford, son of park founder Bill Rutherford, used the eagle exhibit opening as an occasion to talk about the state of funding for the park, as well.

"We do intend to stay open next year despite difficulties with the governor and our funding," he said. "But that won't be possible over the long haul. We're not at the point (of closing) yet, and we're optimistic - or at least hopeful - that we'll find a solution."

Friends of Wildlife Chairman Brad McMillian said the park is looking at putting together a bipartisan group of state legislators to draft a bill intended to restore state funding to the park as well at looking at organizing a grass-roots campaign.

Jewels Phraner can be reached at (309) 686-3196