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American Heritage Takes Flight at Eagle Mountain Sanctuary

Guests to Dollywood know it’s much more than a theme park. For some, a trip is all about fun and relaxation, while others come for exciting shows and entertainment. However, thanks to the American Eagle Foundation (AEF), best known for training Challenger, the free-flying bald eagle, Dollywood literally is home for one of America’s most enduring symbols.

For more than a dozen, non-releasable bald eagles, Dollywood provides not only a home, but a safe, natural environment that allows Dollywood guests the opportunity to see these majestic animals up close in a 1.5 million-cubic-foot natural outdoor aviary that recreates the birds’ natural habitat.   

            In July 1990, Dolly Parton announced the construction of a major eagle complex at Dollywood. The five-part complex includes Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, the country’s largest living showcase of American bald eagles; the Wings of America theater, featuring a birds of prey show; the neighboring Birds of Prey viewing facility added in 2008 which showcases raptors from the show; and an eagle breeding and rehabilitation facility which includes an eagle medical clinic and nursery that is not open to the public. Eagle Mountain Sanctuary and the Wings of America theater have entertained and educated more than 30 million Dollywood visitors since its April 1991 debut.  As a matter of fact, one of the most often asked questions of Dollywood guests upon entering the park is, “Where are the eagles?”

            The eagle complex is a cooperative effort between Dollywood and the AEF, a non-profit organization with permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to possess, care for, exhibit, rehabilitate and breed birds of prey. The eagles at Dollywood are classified as non-releasable because of permanent disabling factors or other lawful reasons and, therefore, are unable to survive on their own in the wild. This unique showcase gives Dollywood visitors the rare opportunity to see the eagles up close and learn more about the regal bird which has served as our country’s national symbol for more than 200 years.

            Dollywood visitors also enjoy learning even more about the bald eagle and some of its feathered friends at the Wings of America show.  The show’s exciting, entertaining and educational format displays the beauty and power of hawks, falcons, vultures, owls and eagles. The audience learns the unique characteristics about the individual species of birds and has the opportunity to see several of the birds in “free flight,” adding to the show’s surprise and excitement.  Between shows, park guests can visit the Birds of Prey viewing facility located next to the theater. Raptors presented in the show are housed in the facility which offers another up-close glimpse of these amazing birds along with storyboards which offer more detailed information about each bird of prey. 

            Perhaps Dollywood and the AEF’s most important work is taking place several miles from the park at the Breeding and Rehabilitation Center. The AEF has released more than 100 eagles since the 1980s.  Since the spring of 1991, bald eaglets and golden eaglets have been hatched to parents that are permanent Dollywood residents.  A number of birds have been rehabilitated and returned to their natural habitats in the wild.

            Challenger, the Breeding and Rehabilitation Center’s most-recognizable resident, has been a free-flying educational ambassador for his species since 1991. Challenger was rescued after being blown from his Louisiana nest during a storm at five weeks of age. Named in honor of the lost space shuttle crew, Challenger has performed free-flights during the national anthem at hundreds of events coast to coast—raising substantial public awareness for the bald eagle protection cause. He is the first bald eagle in American history trained to free-fly into stadiums and arenas during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Challenger has helped educate millions of people about the need to protect America’s national bird.