Eagle Hacking

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Sibling Eaglets get accustomed to their new temporary home.

Prior to release, Eaglets are outfitted with a Patagial Tag on their left wing for easy
identification in the wild.

After getting their patagial tags, these siblings await their release into the wild just a day later!
"When are we gonna get outta here, sis?!"

The number on a patagial tag indicates the the last digit of the year of release (hence, 5 = 2015).
Since patagial tags fall off after a year, there's no confusion between decades.

Sometimes Eaglets fledge without hesitation...and sometimes they sit there for hours!

View from the tower!

These Eaglet siblings set the AEF record for fastest release. Both were in the air before their
hack tower door was even halfway open!
Photo by John Douglas Prickett

The AEF regularly releases Eaglets in honor of fallen soldiers. Y5 was released in honor of the
Marines and Sailor murdered in the Chattanooga shooting of 2015.
Photo by John Douglas Prickett

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Each hack room has a maximum capacity of 3 Eaglets. They even get along with eaglets that
aren't their siblings!

The AEF’s Hacking program has resulted in the the release of 182 young bald eagles and 11 golden eagles into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee from 1992 through 2022.

Once a captive-hatched eaglet at the American Eagle Foundation reaches 6-8 weeks of age, it graduates to the AEF’s Hack Tower on Douglas Lake in East Tennessee to prepare for its release into the wild.

In addition, AEF often receives eaglets from other organizations that do not have their own release facility and also eaglets that have fallen out of their nests in the wild, caring for or rehabilitating them until they can be released or providing a forever home for them if they sustained injuries which rendered them non-releasable. AEF has even rescued bald eagle eggs from potentially dangerous nesting sites (such as a lighting tower in a professional baseball park), and brought them safely back to our incubators, caring for them diligently, and ultimately releasing them into the wild.

What is Hacking?

Hacking is a controlled way to raise and release bald eagles into a wild viable environment from a artificial nesting tower. This method is used to simulate a wild eagle nesting site and aids in recovery in an area where re-population is desirable.

The principle behind eagle hacking is that eagles tend to return to the area from which they were raised and fledged (within approximately 75 miles) after they reach sexual maturity at 4 to 5 years age and choose a lifelong mate.

AEF Hack Tower Description

The Douglas Lake Hack Tower is located approximately 25 miles northwest of the Pigeon Forge facility and approximately 2 miles south of Dandridge, Tennessee. It sits high above a secluded and private cove where humans do not disturb.

Four hack compartments are constructed atop a 20-foot tower.  The size of each compartment is approximately 8 feet x 8 feet x 8 feet.  The AEF creates an environment inside the compartment that mimics the feel of their natural nest, with sticks around the edges and soft nesting materials inside. In addition, perches are in place to serve as branches for the young eaglets to practice branching, ‘wingercizing,’ and hovering in place.

The compartments are side by side, with vertical bars—conduit pipes—spaced 4-inches apart in the center, separating each compartment. Vertical bars are also installed on a large front window that can be pulled up, via rope and pulley, when the Eagles of any cage are ready for release. These barred windows keep the Eaglets safe from predators while still allowing them to view fish on the surface of the lake below.

The sides and rear of the cages are of solid wood, except that hack attendants can view the eaglets through 1-way glass from a covered platform behind the cages.

Graduating to the Hack Tower

The AEF removes Eaglets from their parents’ captive nests when they are 6-8 weeks old.

The AEF constructs the aviary nests with steep and somewhat high edges so that the Eaglets can remain with their parents as long as possible. However,the transfer to the Hack Tower needs to be made just before an Eaglet begins to peer downward to the ground at the Dollywood park or at attending staff members at our off-park breeding facility. This is usually around 6 weeks of age. If they begin to look down from the sides of their nest, they could see AEF staff placing food on the ground inside the aviary for the parent Eagles to take back to the nest for the babies. This could easily result in the Eaglet’s permanently associating humans as their food source, and thus not understanding that they must learn to fish for themselves. Identifying food with humans could risk the eaglets starving to death after their release.

Likewise, if the Eaglets get too familiar with the Dollywood Park patrons by viewing them from 80 feet away for a few weeks, they would tend to lose their wildness to the degree that their well-being would be significantly diminished.

Eaglets from the AEF’s headquarter aviaries are transferred to the Hack Tower at approximately 8 weeks of age.  Eaglets from AEF’s on-site (Dollywood) aviaries are transferred to the Hack Tower at approximately 6 weeks age.

In summary, the responsibility of the AEF is to imprint our released Eagles on typical Bald Eagle habitat where they can learn how to survive in the wild.


Up to three Eaglets of similar age can be placed within each of the 4 cages at once. Eaglets do not have to be siblings to co-exist.

Daily Hack Operations

A Hack site attendant will observe the Eaglets through 1-way glass every day. In addition to daily feeding and watering, he/she takes notes on how well each Eaglet is eating and behaving and whether there are any signs of injury or other ailment.

The Eaglets are fed by the attendant via 4-inch high floor-level drawers, that can deliver the food (primarily trout and quail) through the rear solid walls to the interior of each cage.  Water is pumped into plastic trays within each compartment.


The Eagles are released at approximately 13 – 14 weeks age, when they would typically first be capable of flight in the wild.  By this age, they will have reached full adult size, with a wingspan of 6.5 to 7.5 feet!

Before being released, each Eaglet is fitted with a wing patagial tag and also leg bands that identify the location and date of the release.

Each eaglet released is also fitted with a radio transmitter so it can be monitored within the Douglas Lake Cove area.  Food is left along the side of the lake for several days in case the Eaglet is unsuccessful in finding food for himself during this time.

The radio transmitter is discarded when the tail feather to which it is attached molts.

With Honors

To experience the sight of a young Eaglet flying free is almost indescribable. It is hope, joy, pride—and patriotism rolled up into one.

Whenever possible, the AEF honors a serviceman or woman from our military, the family of a fallen hero, a first responder, or a person whose life of service is worthy of such an honor.

A flag ceremony is held, and family and friends gather and help pull the cord which raises the bars on the compartment of the hack tower where the soon-to-be-released eaglet has completed its nestling stage.

As those who have gathered watch in anticipation, the eaglet sees his world and flies free, soaring across the lake and making its first very inexperienced landing. Sometimes the eaglet actually lands in the lake, and a boat with AEF staff is ever present to rescue any Eaglet who does not make a perfect landing the first time. If a water landing occurs, the Eaglet will use his wings to swim to shore (they are good swimmers!) and will perch on the ground or on a log so that his wings can dry out.  Again, the staff will wait, hours or all day if necessary to make sure the Eaglet is able to fly up in a tree where he will be able to recover and safe from predators.