Bald Eagles' Manhattan Return Turns Turbulent

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"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."

National Geographic Today, at 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news journal available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it. Go>>

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