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Beauty and the (artificial) beak

More than three years after a poacher shot off her upper beak, a bald eagle named Beauty can finally live up to her name – with the help of volunteers.

A team attached an artificial beak to the eagle in mid-May, improving her appearance and, more importantly, helping her grasp food.

“She's got a grill,” joked Nate Calvin, the Boise engineer who spent 200 hours designing the complex beak.

The “grill” was some metal exposed when a bit of the synthetic beak broke off. But the new beak is only a temporary fix, designed to nail down precise measurements.

A final beak made of tougher material will be created and attached later, though her saviors don't plan to release her back into the wild. They say the final beak will still not be strong enough to tear flesh from prey.

But getting this artificial beak now was key to Beauty's survival. A wild eagle that must be hand-fed by humans would eventually have to be euthanized, especially since her life span could run four more decades, said Jane Fink Cantwell, who took Beauty to her raptor recovery center in Idaho two years ago.

Cantwell estimated that money and donated services worth $100,000 has gone toward Beauty so far, and that the figure could more than double before the final beak is attached.

Two weeks after the beak was applied, “Beauty continues to do very well and we remain guardedly optimistic for her future,” Cantwell said in an e-mail Friday.

That's a much better prognosis than when the bird was found in 2005 scrounging for food and slowly starving at a landfill in Alaska. A bullet had taken most of her curved upper beak, leaving her tongue and sinuses exposed.

Beauty was taken to a bird recovery center in Anchorage, where she was hand-fed while her caretakers waited in vain for a new beak to grow. Cantwell in 2007 agreed to take the eagle to her Birds of Prey Northwest ranch.

During a speaking engagement in Boise, she met Calvin, who offered to design a beak.

“As an engineer, as a human being first, I was interested in helping it out,” Calvin said.

Molds were made of the remaining beak and scanned into a computer so the artificial beak could be created accurately.

Some critics question such an extraordinary effort to save one bird that is no longer on the endangered species list. But Cantwell pointed out that Beauty has the potential to breed or be a foster mother to orphaned eagles.

Cantwell also plans to use the bird at lectures around the country to teach people not to shoot at raptors.