COLUMBIA — For at least one person in the crowd, the release Monday of the bald eagle known as Einstein was "better than fireworks."
That's what Sally Swanson had to say about watching as Einstein emerged from his cage. He took two quick hops and then flew to a nearby tree.
Swanson and her husband, Bob, were among the 200 people who looked on as Einstein returned to the wild after two months in the care of the Raptor Rehabilitation Project at MU's College of Veterinary Medicine. The event took place at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area along the Missouri River.
The Swansons are members of the Boone's Lick Chapter of Missouri Master Naturalist, a volunteer organization that works with the Missouri Department of Conservation and other ecological organizations. They said they were happy with the turnout.
"This is pretty cool, to have this many people come out and see this, especially the number of kids that were out here," said Bob Swanson, who has volunteered with the raptor project and attended several bird releases in the past. "Kids today are in front of the television and not getting out and seeing stuff like this. This is pretty special. This is it, this is what's it all about — freedom and our national bird."
"When we heard that there was going to be a release of one of the eagles, we were all over that," Sally Swanson said.
A Conservation Department worker found Einstein on April 20 near Macon. The MU News Bureau described Einstein's symptoms in a news release on July 1: "He appeared disoriented, depressed, was unable to stand and had uncoordinated movements. He was also discharging a foul-smelling liquid from his mouth and nose that was consistent with a condition known as gastrointestinal stasis, which involves food rotting in the bird’s digestive tract rather than being digested completely." The worker brought the eagle to the veterinary school, where it was treated for lead poisoning.
A third-year veterinary student and president of the Raptor Rehabilitation Project, Elizabeth Groth, was Einstein's primary caregiver during rehabilitation. She said lead toxicity causes "severe neurological issues in birds."
Groth said the poisoning was "probably from eating fish that have been in contact with lead."
"A lot of the times it will be lead sinkers that they eat and then they accumulate lead in their body," she said. "And, over the course of four or five years, (the birds) start accumulating the lead in their bodies."
Bald eagles are not common but are also not that unusual at the Raptor Rehabilitation Project.
"This year, we've seen six," Groth said. "Normally, when we see them they are lead toxic."
And, no, Einstein is not the smartest eagle that has spent time at the rehabilitation center, Groth said. The bird's name is the simple result of the current naming scheme that centers on famous philosophers and scientists.
"We decided that the eagles should get all the big greats," she said. Two previous eagles in rehabilitation had been named Socrates and Galileo.
The holiday and publicity about the release of the national bird brought a variety of people to the conservation area for the event.
Glenda Moum, also of Columbia, said she thought it was a great moment after Einstein took flight.
"He's so beautiful. It's so amazing to see (an eagle) not in a picture," she said. "Very majestic."
As for Einstein's future, Groth said he is fully recovered and will probably hang around Missouri for a while before migrating to Alaska.