The Past

Historical records indicate that at least seventy-two bald eagle nesting territories are previously known to have existed in New York. (NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation) Although this number is verifiable, it is undoubtedly conservative. Our national symbol is primarily a fish eater and given the exceptional quality of New York's fisheries resource, these magnificent birds have unquestionably been a common sight in the skies over the Empire State since the creation. However, by 1976, only one active territory was known to remain in the entire state. That site, known as NY #1, is located in the heart of the Finger Lakes on property owned by the City of Rochester. During the decade prior to our nation's bicentennial, this territory had seen only one eaglet produced. While the resident pair of eagles struggled to breed on an annual basis, sustained accumulations of organo-chlorine pesticides (primarily DDT) over several decades, and the resulting reduction in egg shell thickness, had all but sealed the fate of New York's native eagle population.

In late 1975, acting on anticipated funding from the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) embarked on what would soon become the most ambitious bald eagle restoration effort in the nation. The period between 1976 and 1988 saw an unprecedented attempt to revive New York's once flourishing eagle population through a process known as "hacking." Utilizing this ancient falconry technique, eaglets were obtained from wild nests as far away as Alaska, or from captive breeding sources. These birds were taken to predetermined sites where they were monitored and cared for until they were ready to venture out on their own. Conceptually, if a large enough number of trans-located eaglets could survive to maturity (4-5 years) there was an excellent probability that they might establish new breeding territories in both historic and newly created habitats within the state. During that thirteen-year period, nearly two hundred young bald eagles were hacked to the wild. Many of those birds and their descendants today form the base for New York's expanding bald eagle community.

By the end of the 2001 eagle nesting season, at least sixty-five territories are known to exist across New York. If that number is not exciting enough, these territories produced more than eighty young. Additionally, it can be said with assurance that there are other sites that have yet to be discovered or reported. Even more encouraging is the fact that New York is not alone in this achievement. Many other states throughout the "lower forty-eight" have seen, or are beginning to see, comparable increases in eagle nesting numbers. What a difference a quarter century can make!

As the eagle hacking project emerged in 1976, a second, though less intensive effort, was begun in an attempt to maintain activity at that one remaining territory. Although the birds at this site had a poor track record for breeding successfully, it was considered fundamental that the territory remain active. Essentially, having eagles to "help," was the first step in helping the eagle population. Not to mention that extirpation was not a term that was looked upon favorably. Crucial in this effort would be the acquisition of a basic understanding of what transpired during the breeding cycle. Several necessary steps were undertaken that initial year (1976) in an attempt to better secure the site and reduce the risk of nest disturbance, in the event that had played a part in previous failures. The first step was the establishment of a cooperative agreement between the City of Rochester who, as mentioned earlier, owns the property, and the Department of Environmental Conservation, who would monitor the site. This agreement, which remains in effect today, not only paved the way for the protection of the eagles and their territory, but has become a gleaming example of cooperation between agencies. It allows for the restriction of general access which reduces the likelihood of nest abandonment, while permitting activities (such as this webcam) which are judged to be legitimate for the overall management of the territory. Additionally, a predator guard was installed on the base of the nest tree to prevent mammalian predation of the eggs or young. This potential threat was taken very seriously because of a healthy raccoon population in the area. Even though eagles usually nest high in a treetop, raccoons are capable and willing to make that climb. The egg(s) or young eagles present in the nest can easily fall prey to a hungry raccoon. Unfortunately, even though adult eagles are large and fierce in appearance, they are frequently timid when it comes to protecting the nest and its contents. Finally, during the late fall of 1976, an observation blind (or hiding place) was constructed a mere fifty yards away from the nest tree so daily activities could be extensively documented.

After careful monitoring of the site through the 1977 season, it was determined in early 1978 that an attempt would be made to "foster" an eaglet, hatched in captivity, into the nest. Fostering is a procedure in which eaglets (usually two to three weeks of age) are placed in a nest with an expectation that the resident adults will accept and raise the bird(s) as if they were their own. Much like our human foster parent counterparts. This was deemed to be a bold step as it had only been successfully undertaken a few times before, and never in New York. On April 24, 1978, a nineteen day old eaglet hatched at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent Wildlife Resource Center, was substituted for the egg present in the nest.

The adult eagles were approximately three weeks into the incubation of that egg and no one knew how this disturbance would be received. Approximately forty five minutes after the climbing team left the area, the female returned to perch on a branch adjacent to the nest. A few moments later she moved over to the massive structure and began to brood the eaglet. And what about Dad? Well, there are those that might say, "typical male" as it proved to be several hours before he finally worked up the courage to return. When he did however, he brought back a small fish, which the female received from him, and ever so gently began to feed their adopted youngster.

This process was repeated annually over the next five years and a total of seven additional foster young took flight into the New York skies.

The entire process however, seemed doomed prior to the 1981 season when the resident male was discovered dead on the ice of a nearby lake in early January. Now what? From that point until March 12th , no eagles were seen in the area. On that date, a report was received from a local resident that two eagles had been observed working on the nest. One must be the female but who was the stranger and where had he come from? Further investigation revealed the new bird was not a stranger at all, but a male that had been released as part of the hacking program at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge during the summer of 1977. He was identified by a yellow streamer on his left wing. The frustration and disappointment of the previous two months turned to elation, and although fostering would have to continue due to contaminant loading in the female, the territory would endure. Ironically the new male appeared to be much more tolerant of the fostering attempts than his predecessor. During the next three seasons he actually joined the female as soon as she returned to begin caring for their new dependents.
Unfortunately in the spring of 1984, the inevitable occurred when the female failed to return. At the time, she was believed to be at least twenty-five years old, which is approaching the upper limits of a bald eagle's life expectancy. She had been a dependable and dedicated provider, and would most certainly be missed. Late in the spring, and in almost anticlimactic fashion, the male returned with an unmarked three year old mate. Due to her young age and the lateness of the season, no nest attempt would occur that year. Changes, as it is said, "were in the wind"!

The 1985 nesting season marked the first opportunity since the restoration project had begun that "unaided" production might be expected. Although this was the first attempt for the unproven female, the entire season seemed almost uneventful, and on April 22nd the first natural hatching from this territory in thirteen years occurred!

To those involved, it was almost a letdown that their "help" might no longer be needed and the eagles might actually get along on their own. However, the ultimate goal of this portion of the restoration program when it began, was to maintain the site until the eagles could sustain it for themselves." What an amazing decade it had been.

It seemed almost appropriate that within a year or two of the return to natural production at "NY #1", the statewide eagle nesting population began a slow but steady increase that today, gains momentum annually. One unexpected bonus that was received from the pair in 1985 was an intact egg that had failed to hatch. Although two eaglets would have been preferred, this unhatched prize answered some significant questions relating to the presence of pesticides in the new female. Those answers proved positive. DDT was not even detected and it's troublesome metabolites (breakdown products) were substantially reduced from what had been documented from her predecessor. The eggshell thickness was actually greater than what is considered to be normal, which would indicate that progress was being made in the cleanup of our natural environment.

Great Expectations

The Future


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