The phone jangled insistently at the Atkinson ranch in nearby Vale, Ore. The caller, from the British Broadcasting Corporation, needed to speak to Eagle trainers Joe and Cordi.
Specifically, would the Atkinsons fly one of their trained eagles with a camera attached to her back to capture the flight experience of a bird soaring between 800 to 1,300 feet, then stooping (diving), wings folded, at speeds over 150 miles per hour, to a lure tossed on the ground?
Yes, they would. Cordi wondered if they’d be able to also capture the sound of the bird cutting through the air — a sound similar to that of a jet coming down for landing. The captured images will be streamed live, beamed by satellite to New York City, and then beamed to the UK where they will be shown live on a two-hour episode of “Planet Earth Live” this July.
It was not the first time the Atkinsons, who are eagle trainers, have received unusual requests. In May, a New York Times reporter is heading their way to do a story and put a 360 camera on an eagle’s back. In September, they will head to Wyoming for a Smithsonian project on jackrabbits and their amazing escape tactics when hunted by golden eagles.
Opportunities in intriguing places seem to find Joe and Cordi Atkinson, and along the way, they’ve learned a lot about conservation and the world’s creatures.
Raptors swoop into their life
As Joe tells it, he gravitated toward animals when he tired of playing with his sisters. His granddad, an animal trainer, taught Joe to respect animals and patiently observe them. Cordi, a microbiologist and photographer, lived close to nature as a child in rural California and feels she was born loving animals. But it was not until Joe and Cordi married that eagles entered their lives.
Joe came home one day in 1975 with a little down fluff ball — and an opportunity. That feathery creature was a baby golden eagle provided by naturalist Al Wool, who created nature films for the Audubon Society. He wanted that little bird raised and trained so it could be featured on film. For Joe, a young falconer, raising and training an eagle was a dream come true.
Joe and Cordi’s kitchen became the bird’s home for a while, until the eglet destroyed a toaster. It was clear that a kitchen was no place for a growing raptor and that powerful birds make poor housemates.
Banished to an outside shed, Reanna the eagle grew rapidly, ignored Cordi but warmed up to Joe and responded to training.
Finally it was time for the eagle to make her film debut. The plan was that the cinematographer/naturalist would film the bird swooping down a hillside and grabbing its prey, a ground squirrel.
First the Atkinsons captured and bagged two ground squirrels and plugged up all potential escape holes in the filming area. Joe then headed up the hill with the eagle braceleted with cuffs and secured with jesses.
Wool set up his camera to capture the bird’s flight and the kill. Upon Cordi’s signal, Joe removed the cuffs and jesses so the bird would appear to be a wild eagle, and Cordi released a ground squirrel.
But things went wrong. The eagle, now large and aggressive, ignored the squirrel and rocketed right at the cameraman, who abandoned his camera and dove into the adjacent canal.
A second take was required. This time good footage of the eagle resulted but, when Cordi released the ground squirrel, the terrified creature sensed danger and immediately ran up Cordi’s pant leg, sending Cordi racing and slapping at her leg.
And the fate of the eagle? They eventually released her, but she kept returning. After a year, she finally left for good, returning only briefly with a mate before disappearing to live a normal avian life.
From California to Eastern Oregon
By then, Joe and Cordi were hooked; birds had become part of the animals they cared for on their ranch. They began flying eagles and cataloged their work in magazine articles focused on their experiences training and hunting with eagles.
Joe and Cordi are master falconers and became board members of the California Foundation for Birds of Prey (CFBP), a raptor rehabilitation center. Using falconry techniques, the Atkinsons discovered they could train young, orphaned, ill and/or injured birds the skills they needed, like riding the thermals, soaring, stooping, and hunting, to increase their chances of survival in the wild.
And their survival is important — for they are at the top of the food chain within their ecosystem, and if they disappear, creatures below them in the hierarchy, including rodents, would experience uncontained and explosive population growth.
Over the years the Atkinsons have successfully released dozens of eagles, giving them the opportunity to take their natural place in the wild.
In 2010, Joe and Cordi felt growing urbanization encroaching on their quiet country lifestyle. Their daughters were grown and living independently, and it seemed the time was right for relocating.
They found a small ranch in Vale that met their specifications. The place was quiet, sufficiently secluded and provided the serenity they sought; there was room for numerous animals and space for an aviary for their work rehabilitating and training birds of prey.
“For us, there is nothing more rewarding than giving these young eagles a second chance in life,” Cordi said.
But a major threat was facing the eagles and birds of prey in the region —lead poisoning caused by the use of lead ammunition.
After seeing the results firsthand, Cordi and Joe committed themselves to educating people and encouraging hunters to switch to non-lead ammo. When animals are shot with lead bullets and their bodies or entrails left for scavenging predators, toxic fragments left in the carcass are ingested, poisoning the predators and causing neurological damage and, eventually, death.
Documentary filmmakers come knocking
They continued their conservation efforts and worked daily with eagles. Documentary filmmakers who needed trained eagles to simulate wild birds began calling.
Joe and Cordi’s birds are trained to respond to trainer calls, but they only have them do what birds would do naturally in the wild. Their birds could deliver just what filmmakers needed. It is illegal to accept cash for work done with native wildlife, but the Atkinsons were willing to work with the filmmakers.
“Through the many film projects we have been a part of, we have been given the unique opportunity to show the public just how amazing golden eagles are and the important role they play in the hierarchy of nature,” Joe Atkinson said. “We welcome any opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of preserving our environment and the species that call it home.”
Among the major productions they have participated in is “The Sagebrush Sea,” a film created in Wyoming over a period of three years from 2010 to 2013 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the purpose of raising awareness of the sagebrush environment and its inhabitants, particularly the greater sage grouse and golden eagle, and the threats to this significant ecosystem.
2015 brought a rare opportunity when Joe was asked to train two majestic Philippine eagles. The national bird of the Philippines, formerly known as the monkey eating eagle, is facing the threat of extinction due to the deforestation of its habitat, the rainforest in the Philippines.
The birds Joe was to train for this Cornell Lab of Ornithology documentary are living in captivity at the Philippine Eagle Foundation near the outskirts of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao.
The task was daunting. Mabuhay, the female eagle, and Imbulog, the male, are serious predators — large, intelligent, curious, calculating and capable of inflicting serious damage. Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Neil Rettig wanted no equipment on the birds and wanted the filming done in the jungle, but permission had to first be granted by armed rebels in the area. This element of danger was amplified by the fact that two deadly members of the cobra family also live in that jungle: the king cobra and the Philippine cobra, whose poison can kill a human in three minutes.
To add to the situation, though “trained” once freed, there was no certainty about what the birds would do. But training proceeded. Soon Joe felt the birds were ready to be filmed.
Cordi had joined her husband and with Joe serving as the handler and Cordi calling the birds to the lure, the filming began. No cobras struck, the training was effective, and the eagle responded as hoped.
And Cordi, in addition to tossing the lure, also managed to capture remarkable images on her own camera.
The film footage, now part of a documentary under development, is intended to bring widespread global awareness to the plight of the magnificent Philippine eagle.
It is anticipated that the worldwide release of the documentary will occur in late spring, though a condensed version has already been released in the Philippines, where many residents were unaware that their nation could be the first to lose their national bird to extinction.
Only about 7 percent of the original Philippine rainforest remains, and efforts are being conducted through a program dubbed Forest Watchers to educate indigenous people about the value of the biodiversity and productivity of the forest and empower them with the authority to affect the fate of the forest. Trained tribespeople working as authorized deputies watch and patrol the forest and report abuses of the land.
The plight of the Philippine eagle affected Cordi deeply.
“This bird reached in and touched my soul and I knew I had to do more and efforts to save this amazing eagle,” she said.
Ellie McKinnon is a freelance writer who lives in Boise.
Local efforts to save the Philippine eagle
Cordi Atkinson gives visually augmented lectures in an effort to raise awareness of the critically endangered Philippine eagle and promote conservation.
She created greeting cards using her photos and makes them available for sale after lectures. She started a special fund, the CMA Fund, and intends to use collected money for the establishment of additional “Forest Watcher” groups to help preserve the eagle and its rapidly shrinking habitat.
Very recently, Cordi presented her visual lecture in Ketchum. Lectures can be scheduled by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.