Bald Eagles' Manhattan Return Turns Turbulent

By Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
August 28, 2002
Roughly seven weeks ago the City of New York released four bald eagles in a park at the northern tip of Manhattan, hoping to re-establish the bird as a local resident. Since then one of the four eagles has flown the coop. And another met with a train accident and was brought back from the dead on the operating table.

"Drama has returned to Inwood Hill Park," said Tom Cullen, Master Falconer and Eagle Project Manager for the New York City Parks & Recreation.

The four eagles are certainly keeping Cullen busy.

"Every family has a problem child and the youngest male eagle [called A64] in this group is mine," Cullen said. Within 48 hours of recovering from a nasty bout of roundworm, the young male was hit by a train and was lying on the track with a broken leg. Cullen traced his location using a radio transmitter that each eagle carries in a tiny custom-designed backpack.

Yesterday A64 underwent surgery. "But soon after receiving the anesthetic the bird died on the operating table and the doctors spent 20 minutes trying to resuscitate him," said Cullen. Fortunately they were successful.

The bone was repaired and a splint attached to the bird's leg. Cullen estimates that he will probably require about three weeks of physical rehabilitation during which he will be extensively handled—something that Cullen has tried to avoid.

The older male, A62, was last seen traveling north of Haverstraw, NY, with another eagle. The older female spent the last week flying out of transmitter range in southwest New Jersey. She returned in good health this morning. "She apparently likes New York more than New Jersey," said Cullen.

The younger female is the only bird that seems to like the neighborhood, and the free lunch. She has only traveled about 150 yards from the release site.

New York's New Immigrants

The eaglets—two males and two females—landed in New York from northern Wisconsin on June 20, exactly 220 years after the bald eagle was declared the national symbol. The birds were hoisted onto a tree-house style platform rigged with a remote-controlled Web camera in Inwood Hill Park, near the Hudson and Harlem rivers in northern Manhattan.

The ultimate goal of the reintroduction program is to encourage the birds to nest and breed in the NYC region, once again making it their home. And New York officials are also hoping that the eagles will become symbols of renewed strength and pride, boosting spirits in the wake of 9/11.

"We're bringing back our nation's symbol to New York," Adrian Benepe, commissioner of NYC's Parks & Recreation, told National Geographic Today in an earlier interview. "We've been through hard times before—we're still in hard times but this is a nice symbolic part of the resurgence of New York."

The eaglets arrived courtesy of the Urban Park Rangers, a division of the city's Parks & Recreation department. The Rangers' goal is to reintroduce native flora and fauna to the city's parks. Bald eagles haven't lived in the Big Apple for more than 100 years, but the rangers are working to change that.

These eagles were commonly seen in the New York area during the 1800s. As late as the mid-1800s, about 70 eagles wintered on Long Island. But hunting, egg collecting, and the pesticide DDT decimated their numbers. And human development devoured eagle habitat.

During the past decade, however, New York State has been restoring the Hudson River and its estuary. At the same time, New York City has been trying to rebuild the various ecosystems in its parks. And now, with the Hudson River's pollution significantly reduced and the forest slopes along the river restored, rangers are hopeful that they can entice the eagles to the area.

"Ecologically speaking, eagles are important for the environment," said Cullen. "They're at the top of the food chain. They act as the perfect barometer of the environment itself."

"Basically, if it's too polluted for the eagles to survive, it's too polluted for us to survive."

New York City, Not a Good Release Site

But not everyone believes that the NYC release site is good for the eagles.

"If reintroducing eagles in New York City had been a good idea, we would have done it as part of our scientifically designed program," said Peter Nye, director of the Endangered Species Unit at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Nye leads the ongoing bald eagle restoration program that began in 1976.

Nye chose four release sites in New York State that had a history of bald eagle occupancy. All were isolated from human disturbance, unpolluted, had abundant food supplies, and were suitable for reoccupation year after year. Today all four sites are successful breeding grounds.

In 1976 there were no bald eagles in New York State. The goal of Nye's program was to establish ten nesting pairs. Between 1976 and 1988 the program released 198 young eagles, and by 1988 there were ten breeding pairs statewide. Since then, no eagles have been released, but the population is actively monitored and continues to soar.

"The program has been a fantastic success," said Nye. "The population is still growing at about 10 to 15 percent per year and there are now 72 nesting pairs around the state."

This year 92 fledglings have left the nest.

Nye said it is too early to pass judgement on the four NYC eagles. Leaving the nest is no guarantee of survival. He also adds that bald eagles reach sexual maturity between four and five years. Whether the four eagles will feel Manhattan's frenetic urban tug and return to the city to nest and breed remains to be seen.

The current plan is to release a total of 20 bald eagles within five years. "We hope that about 10 percent or two birds will return to the area and make New York City their home."

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