When Doris Mager blinked her eyes open on the morning of June 15, 1979, she found herself not under the blankets of her bed, but 50 feet above ground, perched among the branches of a longleaf pine. She had just completed the first night of what would be a weeklong stay in a spacious, inactive eagle’s nest in the woods outside Maitland, Florida.
“To wake up in the morning like an eagle, to look over the mist on the ground, and then to look over Lake Harney and see the sun come up and the mist rise—how beautiful it was,” recalls Mager, a raptor conservationist and educator who turned 95 years old on Friday. “I’ll never forget it.”
With her sit-in, Mager, a gift shop manager at Audubon Florida's office in Maitland, hoped to increase awareness for the then-declining Bald Eagle population and raise money for a raptor rehabilitation center. Today that facility exists as the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, and this month marks the center’s 40th anniversary of caring for injured raptors and educating the community on why these birds are important and how to protect them.
Last year the center received its typical 700-or-so injured or orphaned raptors and released more than 250 of them back into the wild, says Katie Warner, center director. The raptors that survive their injuries but can't be released become exhibit and educational birds at the center or other accredited institutions. Additionally, the center has more than 400 volunteers monitoring more than 700 eagles nests in Florida, and in the past decade, the staff has ramped up its research efforts on causes of sickness and mortality for birds of prey, such as pesticides, microplastics, and lead poisoning.
Way back when, before Mager took up residence in that nest, there was no such place for sick and injured birds of prey in the region. So when a community member entered the Audubon gift shop in 1963 with a Red-tailed Hawk suffering from an infected foot, Mager decided to bring it home. She was no expert in birds, let alone rehabilitation techniques, but felt she had no other choice.
“When I looked into its eyes, spiritually something took over; I cannot describe it to you, but I think I instantly fell in love,” Mager tells Audubon magazine. “My father had said, in life, use common sense and Epsom salt for everything. So I took it home and soaked its foot in Epsom salt and warm water, not knowing what I was doing. One month later that foot infection was completely gone, and I knew it was ready to let it go.”
Soon, Mager became the community’s point person for caring for sick and injured birds of prey. She happily took on the role and started taking lessons from raptor expert John Hamlet to sharpen her techniques. She also began bringing the unreleasable birds to work and using them as educational tools when school groups visited. As she received more and more patients—at one point her backyard was home to seven eagles—both Audubon Florida and Mager realized the need for a dedicated rehabiliation facility and education center. But despite some sizeable donations toward their effort, funding remained an issue.
That didn't stop Mager. She began brainstorming ways to help raise more money for the aviary, and at one point she remembered hearing about a couple in British Columbia that lived in an eagle’s nest for one night. Suddenly everything clicked. “That would be the top thing for me,” she recalls thinking. “I would love to live in an eagle’s nest to raise money.”
With a specific inactive nest in mind, her only concern was whether she could get permission from authorities, since interfering with bird nests is illegal in many cases, especially for an endangered species. Luckily, she says, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave her the green light almost immediately, saying that they did not condone it but would not stop her.
Mager decided her nesting experience would start on June 14, 1979 and last for a week. Some of her friends at the time were tree climbers, so they helped set up the ladder, install lightning rods, and construct a pulley system to transport food, water, and waste. During her time in the nest, Mager was never left alone, and while keeping her company at night, her friends, along with various Audubon staff members and volunteers, would dance and have pizza parties underneath the tree, sending slices up to her using the pulley.
Inevitably word of her stunt got out, and as Mager recalls, around 50 people came to see her each day, including news outlets from Florida and beyond. She was so popular that on one rainy day during the week, a line of cars got stuck in the mud driving through the forest to see her. “That day my tree swayed back and forth, back and forth,” she says. “I had to hang on for dear life.”
Through her sit-in and subsequent visits to 40 Audubon chapters to promote the center, Mager successfully raised the remaining funds needed to complete the project. After about a year of construction, on October 19, 1979, the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey officially opened.
Depite her mission being accomplished, Mager's work wasn't done. She soon hit the road in 1981, traveling the country in a van with her raptor companions and giving talks to community groups and school children. She later started a conservation nonprofit group called Save Our American Raptors.
Since its opening, the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey has expanded at least twice, and the only remaining structure from the original compound is the octogonal owl aviary. In the past 40 years, the center has released more than 620 rehabilitated Bald Eagles back into the wild, Warner says. Today Florida’s eagle population has reached 1,500 nesting pairs, dwarfing the 88 active nests documented in 1973, when the species was suffering a rapid decline due to habitat loss, illegal shootings, and DDT use. No longer an endangered species, the bird's recovery is a testament to the power of the act but also the work done by the facility Mager helped to establish.
“I credit Doris for her leadership in convincing Audubon that there was an important mission to be pursued here,” says Charles Lee, director of advocacy at Audubon Florida. “For a long time, old-school wildlife biologists felt that rehabilitating wildlife would not have any significant effect on the population. We’ve been able to add to the population pool. A significant percentage of eagles in Florida are descendants of those that were rehabilitated at our center.”
As for the Eagle Lady, as Mager came to be known, she now lives with her son in Washington State. In her tenth decade, Mager stays a bit closer to home these days, but she's still a regular at local libraries and schools, and she's always happy to talk about her favorite birds, including that very first Red-tailed Hawk that changed her life and the lives of so many others.
"I can still see him go 55 years later," Mager says. "I gave him a hoist in the air and that bird went off my arm, went up in the air, soared around and around three times, and off he took."