Pittsburgh bald eagles bounce back


In 2013 a pair of bald eagles set up housekeeping along the Monongahela River in the Hays neighborhood of Pittsburgh just 5 miles from downtown. The nest sat high in a tall tree, and a single egg was laid March 11; it hatched April 14.

That June, strong winds dislodged that young eagle from its nest. It was too young to fly, but it survived for several weeks. The adults tended and fed the juvenile eagle while it clung to vines beneath the nest. It made its first flight June 29.

Bald eagles had returned to Pittsburgh, and it was a big story on television and radio and in the newspapers. The public was hooked. Eagle watchers flocked to the bike trail from which the birds could be seen.

The eagles returned each year since then to nest. Earlier this year, on Feb. 11, the female laid her first egg. But on Feb. 12, a big windstorm blew down the nest tree, and the egg was lost.

The speculation began: Would the eagles stay in the area? Would they re-nest? If so, where?

I suspected the eagles would stick around, but didn’t know if there was a tree nearby suitable to hold a massive eagle nest.

It turns out bald eagles are resilient birds. Maybe they even keep tabs on a backup nest location just in case it’s needed. On Feb. 15, the eagles began carrying sticks for a new nest about 100 yards from the fallen tree. In just four days the nest seemed to be complete, and observers noticed incubation behavior that suggested the female had already laid another egg. A nest cam is pointed at the new nest (www.aswp.org), but the view is obscured by vegetation.

Given the timing of the first egg, a second egg should have been formed by Feb. 14. The female probably just dropped and lost that one because she had nowhere to put it. But after a few more days, she had formed and laid what was presumably a third egg.

Re-nesting by small songbirds such as robins and cardinals is quite common, but their entire nesting cycle takes only about 35 days. Bald eagle incubation alone takes that long. Add the time young spend in the nest and time required to learn how to hunt independently, and most of summer is gone. There just isn’t enough time for eagles to re-nest after a disaster unless they do it quickly. And that’s exactly what the Hays eagles did.

Since 1980 when bald eagle reintroduction projects began across the country, they have made a remarkable comeback. Credit landmark legislation and state and federal wildlife agencies for the bald eagle’s recovery. In 1982, bald eagles were critically endangered. In 1994, they were upgraded from endangered to threatened status. In 2007, they were delisted nationally as threatened. Today, they nest in all states except Hawaii. Recovering species can be a long, slow process, but that’s what makes the process worthwhile.

A variety of factors helped bring bald eagles back. The National Environmental Policy Act (1970) required federal agencies to consider environmental factors and values when evaluating the environmental impacts their decisions would make.

The Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act (1972) provided federal protection. The Clean Water Act (1972) provided the authority to clean the nation’s rivers and lakes. It took years, but today’s clean waterways provide the fish that eagles eat.

The Endangered Species Act (1973) gave protection to species threatened or endangered by extinction. Eagles, alligators, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons, California condors, grizzly bears, whooping cranes, gray whales, Kirkland’s warblers and black-footed ferrets are just a few of the species that have escaped the brink of extinction.

Conservation works. We see the results in national parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and even major urban areas. I can only cross my fingers and hold my breath that the ongoing stampede to deregulate environmental safeguards in Washington, D.C., does not undo all the good that has been done since the early 1970s.

Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3 to 4 p.m. Sundays on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com. Visit Scott’s website www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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