MYSTIC — Doris Mager, an energetic, 93-year-old no-nonsense Connecticut native, is a triple force. A raptor advocate, an educator and an activist, Mager is a force of nature, a force to be reckoned with, and a force for good. She's traveled around the country, giving talks at libraries, schools and nature centers about the importance of the natural world, raptors in particular, and is now making sure the birds in her care will be in good hands.
Mager, who was born in 1926 in a house along the Connecticut River, founded Save Our American Raptors, a nonprofit devoted to birds of prey, when she realized the birds were in danger of extinction. In 1986, when she was 60 years old, she rode her bicycle across the country to protest the use of DDT. She also lived in an eagle's nest for a week, to draw attention to the plight of the American eagle and other birds who were once in peril. Now that eagles and ospreys, who faced near extinction just decades ago, are back and thriving along the country's waterways, Mager said the time is right to take a step back.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mager, wearing an eagle pendant around her neck, sandals on her feet and a purple T-shirt from the Badlands of South Dakota, stood in a classroom at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center giving clear instructions on how best to care for E.T., the great horned owl who has been her companion for the last 36 years.
She was also teaching the nature center's animal curator, Lori Edward, and some of the children in the room, how to walk with E.T. on their arms, then stop, turn, and let her fly back to her perch.
"You can't be afraid," Mager said as she coached 11-year-old Ezra Gelfand of Brooklyn, N.Y,. how to walk across the room with E.T. perched on his arm. "She'll pick right up on that."
Bob Seaton of Chicopee, Mass., the current president of SOARS, who has accompanied Mager on many of her adventures over the last 30 years, stood at attention nearby.
"She can be tough," said Beaton with obvious admiration. "You're not going to change her ways."
"I've been doing things my way for 93 years," a smiling Mager quipped.
Mager had just driven her van across the country — with only E.T. to keep her company — to deliver the owl, and the van, to the nature center.
"She's giving us both," said Maggie Jones, the center's senior director of conservation and philanthropy, who has known Mager for years. "She's leaving both here."
Mager found E.T. abandoned 36 years ago when the tiny owlet was just a small ball of fluff. Now she is making sure that the owl is in a good home, a familiar place with familiar faces. When Mager returns to Washington state, where her only son, Bill, resides, E.T. will stay in Mystic.
"There are so many wonderful, small-world stories surrounding Doris and E.T.," Jones continued, noting that the pair have become well known in the region over the years and have participated in many programs at the center.
"E.T. stands for Extra Terrific," Mager told the roomful of children and adults who watched in awe as the owl hopped from floor to perch to the extended arm of another child eager to have a turn walking with the raptor. The great horned owl is the king of the forest, she said. At one point, the owl hopped onto Mager's shoulder and leaned close to her, as if to give her a hug.
"She likes to take a nap," said a smiling Mager. "At 93, I like to take a nap too."
Mager earned "The Eagle Lady" nickname decades ago when she rescued a bald eagle that had been shot through the wing. But it was really the red-tailed hawk she rescued in Florida 51 years ago that initially inspired her to become an outspoken, activist-advocate-educator for her feathered friends.
"I was a salesperson," Mager said matter-of-factly. "And I was a good salesperson."
Mager was managing a store for the Audubon Society of Florida’s Birds of Prey Center when someone brought to the office a cardboard box containing the injured red-tailed hawk. When she opened the box, she said, the hawk's talons were raised and ready to kill.
"I saw there was an infection in his foot," she said. It was after she took the hawk home, nursed it back to health and set it free, that Mager became a raptor advocate.
"I learned the hard way," said Mager who has traveled the world with her message and continues to educate people about matters like the Migratory Bird Act and the role the birds play in the ecosystem.
If we didn't have migratory birds, she said, "we'd be overrun with rats, mice and ... and, as much as we like them ... bunnies ... and bugs."
"I've done everything I want to do," Mager said. "I've led tours all over the world, I've been to Alaska, to Trinidad and to Africa."
She has also lived in a number of states, from Connecticut to Florida, and from North Carolina to her new home in Washington.
Mager still has two birds waiting for her back in Washington. One is an adopted bald eagle named Atsa Yaza, which is Navajo for "little eagle."
The other is a screech owl that Mager said she will continue to work with in schoolrooms.
"Until the day the owl dies," she said, "or the day I do."