Empire – Rebecca Lessard released her last rehabilitated eagle on South Fox Island about a month ago, piling into a small chartered plane with the caged raptor and her assistant.

The eagle had come from the island and when it was released, soared down the runway before being joined by another eagle and taking off.

“It was a fun way to end,” Lessard told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “It was a fun adventure and then my helper and I went out for ice cream.”

It has been 31 years since Lessard founded the Wings of Wonder raptor sanctuary at her home in Empire. Lessard retired this month after finding homes for her beloved birds and committing to helping another sanctuary get off the ground in Harbor Springs.

The new Tribal Eagle Aviary is a project of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Lessard, who has wanted to see an aviary established for about 15 years, will work with the tribe this year and next to help with its design and with training.

Tribal aviaries allow tribes to shelter eagles that have been rescued from the wild because of injury or illness, are rehabilitated and cannot be returned to the wild. Eagle feathers lost through molting are used by Native Americans for religious and ceremonial use, and the eagles receive care for the rest of their lives.

There are seven tribal aviaries in the United States and all are located in the southwest or the Pacific northwest. The Traverse Bay Band’s aviary will be the first one east of the Mississippi River, Lessard said.

“It’s putting a place on the map here,” Lessard said, and may be used as a model for more aviaries in the Midwest region.

Now that she has more free time, Lessard will begin work on a book project, a memoir of her life as a raptor rehabilitator. She is also working on raptor educational kits that will go to public libraries, where children can check them out and learn about the magnificent birds.

She’ll also spend time hiking, horseback riding, and looking at her calendar, where for the first time in many years there are four days in a row with nothing on it.

Lessard became a local celebrity through her work at WOW and people would gather to watch when an eagle or other bird was released. Some were not able to return to their natural homes and became her ambassadors, visiting schools and other organizations with her, many becoming celebrities themselves.