ST. PETERSBURG — She was beloved, and her sudden death at age 27 caught everyone off guard.
They held the wake three weeks later. Despite cold and rain, 26 people showed up. Some, like Andrea Pico Estrada, had never met her.
Dr. Janine Cianciolo recalled her patient's final moments.
"She was in my arms. She stared at the sky again and called. Then she passed away."
Corey Smolik kept a recording of her laugh on his cell phone. When he played it for the gathered mourners, tears trickled, smiles cracked.
They sang a farewell song in Cherokee, a language connected to an ancient culture that revered her kind.
And then they buried Free Spirit at the place where they had all come to know and love her — the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.
That the passing of a bald eagle would move so many hearts illuminates an oft-unmentioned side of a relationship usually defined in terms of the ill humans have inflicted upon a once-endangered species.
On display at Boyd Hill this spring was evidence of the ancient, almost spiritual power eagles hold over people.
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American Indian tribes see the eagle as a messenger from heaven; the Greeks, as a mascot to Zeus; Germans and Americans, as a symbol of national strength.
For people like Estrada, the birds reflect the struggles they face in marriage and raising kids.
For seven months, the stay-at-home mom and amateur photographer spent little time at home. For hours every morning, after her two youngest children set off to school, she would drive more than an hour from St. Petersburg and park along the fence of the Anclote power plant near Tarpon Springs.
A pair of eagles that for years has nested on a rotted old pine next to the road was raising two chicks. Estrada was there for every moment, from egg laying to first flight.
"It's like watching my own kids grow up, only with these guys, those milestones are condensed into three months," Estrada said. "When I started, I didn't know birds could be great parents. I didn't know the bond they have with their offspring. … It was much more like watching a family."
When she moved to St. Petersburg from Texas in October after her husband started a new job at Jabil Circuit, Estrada got to know the eagles almost before she started making friends around her new home.
Her infatuation with them began by accident, when a stranger she met while visiting Wall Springs suggested she visit the nest.
Estrada spent so much time with the birds, snapping photos and even watching over the nest during storms, she created a narrative of their lives as if the nest were the setting for a sitcom.
The plot: a Mr. Mom deals with the antics of his diva wife.
Dad feeds the babies, hunts for food and takes out the garbage — fish carcasses and soiled moss.
Mom is the "princess."
"She spends hours preening and doing her toes and refuses to come back even if Dad has been rearing the chicks for hours on end," Estrada said.
She noted that Mom preens each feather and plucks each talon exactly four times during her grooming sessions.
In May, Estrada returned to the nest one last time.
The nesting season for bald eagles in Florida ended May 15. When the birds and their new offspring flew off to parts north, their nests were left empty. In a way, so was a part of Estrada's life.
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Back in the days when most of Central Florida was pine scrub and farmland, Charles Broley ventured where only eagles dare.
Throughout the 1940s, the former bank manager climbed into hundreds of eagle nests across the state, often more than 100 feet up, placing numbered bands on more than 1,000 chicks so their movement patterns could be tracked.
His obsession is legend among present-day Florida eagle stewards, like Barb Walker, the coordinator for Pinellas County's Audubon Society Eagle Watch program.
She feels it's her job to carry on the torch of eagle conservation pioneered by Broley 60 years ago.
"I think it's important to our children. The past with eagles is important, even before they were delisted (from the endangered species list)," Walker said.
She's had a hand in helping with nearly every one of the dozen eagle rescues or releases in Pinellas County this year.
She and the volunteers she works with have so impressed one Dunedin homeowner, Arno Beken, that he allows them to camp outside his home morning after morning, watching the eagles that live in his back yard.
When Beken was searching for a place to retire, his real estate agent sold him on the Dunedin home last year when she said, "The house comes with a bald eagle nest in the back yard."
"By and large, I knew there would be people watching," Beken said. "I didn't know how active they would be with predatory birds."
Although the nest in his yard collapsed last month, killing one of the chicks inside, he said he hopes the birds will return next year to rebuild. For him, the birds were like a live version of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. He would lie on his roof at nights and watch the birds stir in their nest.
"They were like reality TV," he said, "maybe with a lot more reality."
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Patricia Terrell, mother of four, grandmother of 13, planted a eucalyptus tree in her south St. Petersburg back yard shortly after she and her husband bought their house in June 1970. In the early '90s, when the tree had grown to tower over the neighborhood, a pair of bald eagles moved in and have been roosting there ever since.
For Terrell, the birds are guardians.
Like the female eagle that built her nest in the tree, with equal parts tenderness and maternal ferocity, Terrell raised her kids to be strong and smart.
One of her daughters went to law school. Her son, Pat Terrell, won a football championship with Notre Dame and went on to play for the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers.
Like the eagle, Terrell lost her mate.
Her husband died a few years back. But one day two years ago, when a new male had joined the female in the nest, Terrell entertained the idea — however briefly — that the essence of her husband had returned, as well.
A contractor had come to repair cracks in her driveway. What happened next added fuel to her impossible notion.
When the eagle, which never once disturbed Terrell, her children or any of her visiting grandchildren, saw the contractor, the massive bird attacked.
"The eagle swooped down over his head," Terrell said. "He was so close. I'm telling you, he just dashed in the garage. It was so frightening."
She said she'll always remember what the contractor told her afterward.
"Ma'am, how long did you say your husband's been gone? Don't get rid of those eagles. He was protecting you."