DIVIDE - The Girl from Divide didn't hesitate for a second, after the door of the large plastic crate opened.
The majestic golden eagle launched into the vast sky above an 870-acre cattle ranch without looking back.
Her wings, spanning 6½ feet, soared on brisk thermal currents. The whoosh of flapping mingled with whispers of delight from a small group of onlookers.
"Oh yeah, she can fly," murmured Diana Miller, director of the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo.
"Gorgeous," "incredible," "awesome" and "massive" were other utterances from Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials, staff of the Double Eagle Ranch, and volunteers who help injured raptors find their way back to the wilderness.
It was perfect, Miller said, really a best-case scenario. Of the 250 injured birds that the center receives each year, up to eight are golden eagles, and only one or two can be rehabilitated to the point of being returned to their natural habitat, she said.
Sometimes they act timid after gaining freedom, flying a short distance, then stopping. Other times, they panic and attack spectators.
That would be a worst-case scenario.
"It's powerful to be hit by a bird of prey," Miller said. Something like having a 10-pound bowling ball dropped on you at up to 100 mph.
But the Girl from Divide, thought to be 4 or 5 years old, was eager to find her old home. She had eaten a good dinner of rabbit Tuesday night and was ready.
Just as hoped, she flew high into the distance, until she was a tiny speck landing on a treetop, which binoculars helped verify.
The Double Eagle Ranch, near Summit Elementary School (mascot: The Soaring Eagles) is possibly the bird's former stomping grounds, Miller said.
The territory of a golden eagle can encompass 10 to 60 miles, she said.
Breeding pairs of golden eagles, as well as bald eagles, nest on the rolling pasture land, said ranch manager Bob Burton, who opened the property for the release.
"They're a majestic bird and a big part of the community, so it's great to see her released into the wild," he said.
With a diet that includes ground squirrels and rabbits, eagles "help ranchers to use nature to control itself," he added.
Burton coincidentally had driven by a car crash outside of Divide near South Park last month and saw the hurt eagle lying in a ditch that rainy night.
Benjamin Meier, a district wildlife manager, was on call when he heard from a State Patrol trooper that there was a wounded golden eagle.
"It looked healthy but couldn't fly," he said. "It was hopping around."
The bird also was about 20 feet from the highway.
"The big concern was for its safety," Meier said. "We didn't want it getting on the highway."
Using gloves and a blanket, Meier captured the bird, and it was transported to the nonprofit Pueblo raptor center, the closest rescue facility after the May closure of the Ellicott Wildlife and Rehabilitation Center.
The Girl from Divide, as she became known, sustained soft tissue damage, Miller said, but no broken bones.
She had swelling and bruising on her left foot and couldn't walk for three days. She might have been hit by one of the cars in the wreck, or perhaps had encountered wire fencing in the adverse weather.
She was given time to heal, plumped up on her favorite meal of rabbit and exercised in a large enclosed area.
"She recovered nicely," Miller said, which isn't always the case. The center had to put four birds to sleep Tuesday, she said.
"So many are electrocuted or hit by cars and can't be saved," she said, "Being able to release one is the most rewarding part of our job. She's back where she belongs."
The nonprofit Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo is open to the public 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Free public programs are offered at 11:30 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday. The center also holds special events, including an eclipse viewing party Monday. For more information, go to https://natureandraptor.org.