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Bald Eagles Restoration Program

Bald eagle portrait - Susan Rachlin/USFWS.Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge played an integral role in reintroducing the once-endangered bald eagle to New York State. Here is an account of this innovative restoration program, and a little history on Montezuma's bald eagles.

Bald Eagles Prior to the 1950's New York State had upwards of 70 nesting pairs of bald eagles. A combination of events led to only one known active bald eagle nest in the entire state by 1960. This last nesting pair, like many of the others which had existed in the state, suffered from an accumulation of pesticides (primarily DDT) in their body tissues. This accumulation inhibited successful egg laying and consequently the production of young eagles. Other factors contributing to the decline of the birds in New York and elsewhere included the loss of necessary habitat and the illegal killing of the birds.

The drastic decline in numbers led the federal government to declare the bald eagle to be endangered in the lower 48 states, except for the states of Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan where the bird is listed as threatened.

Due to the protection afforded by the Bald Eagle Act of 1940 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the efforts made toward cleaning up the environment, the outlook for bald eagles is more promising than it has been in several decades. In the mid-1970's New York launched the most comprehensive bald eagle restoration program in the nation. This program was designed to return breeding bald eagles to all portions of the state still suitable for their existence. In 1976, a program designed to reestablish nesting bald eagles in New York was undertaken at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The program involved the use of a falconry technique called "hacking" to release young bald eagles to the wild. The Montezuma program in 1976 was the first of it's kind on the North American continent.

In the hacking process, immature bald eagles were placed in artificial nests on a caged platform atop a high tower. The birds were fed carp and small mammals until they were ready to fly. The feeding was done carefully so that the young birds would not associate people with food or lose their fear of humans.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge was chosen as the site for the release program because of its central location, large amounts of suitable habitat, abundance of prey species, and limited disturbances. In addition, Montezuma was formerly an active bald eagle nesting site as late as 1959, with young last successfully produced in 1956.

From 1976 to 1980 a total of 23 bald eagles were released at the refuge through the hacking program. The birds were obtained from wild nests in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and from the captive breeding stock at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Research Laboratory in Patuxent, Maryland. The project demonstrated that young bald eagles can be reared in man-made situations and still learn to hunt, feed, and survive on their own. The program attained its greatest success in the spring of 1980 when the first two eagles released in the program (1976) successfully nested in northern New York. In 1981, the hacking project was expanded and relocated to the Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Area in western New York. The hacking program concluded in 1989 when the program's goals of re-establishing ten nesting pair was achieved.

During early July of 1987 a local farmer reported seeing a large nest in an isolated location on the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Field inspection of the site disclosed not only the nest but the presence of two nearly grown eaglets. The young eagles were approximately 11 weeks old and only days away from being ready to fledge (leave the nest for the first time). The two young birds were the first to be produced at Montezuma in over 30 years.

An additional surprise came when a trio, rather than a pair, of eagles was observed tending to the young. These three adult eagles (a white-tagged male released in 1978 from Montezuma, an unmarked female bird, and a yellow-tagged male bird released in 1982 from the Oak Orchard hacking site) had frequented the same areas of the refuge since 1986.

A nest site examination, completed after the eaglets fledged, revealed that the tree supporting the nest was in very poor condition. The tree was a dead elm and the nest was precariously perched 50 feet up on an overhanging branch. The location of the nest and the deteriorated condition of the tree made it virtually certain that the nest would fall during winter storms or, worse yet, during the spring when eggs or young were in the nest.

In late December, the refuge staff joined forces with the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation (NYSEG) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to stabilize the bald eagle nest. A 75-foot utility pole was installed next to the nest tree by means of a large, tracked Bombardier pole-setting machine. A "cradle" was positioned and bolted into place just under the nest. Working at the top of the pole, the utility's linemen cut the supporting limbs and secured the nest to the new platform.

The trio of eagles produced one young from the pole nest before moving to a second nest located in a dead snag in Tschache Pool. From 1990 to 1994, the trio produced 7 young from this nest (nest #2). A severe wind storm blew nest #2 down on November 1, 1994. By the spring of 1995, nest #3 was constructed in a live cottonwood tree adjacent to Tschache Pool. Nine young were produced from nest #3 (1995-1998). The Labor Day storm of 1998 blew down nest #3. In a nearby tree, nest #4 was constructed. The birds abandoned their nesting attempt in 1999. The trio was not observed at nest #4 during the 2000 nesting season. In September 2000, the trio's new nest site (nest #5) was located in a tree south of Armitage Road. Only time will tell how long the trio will stay put at this site.

In addition to the trio, other bald eagles have used Montezuma. In 1992, a fourth adult bald eagle was observed throughout the year at Tschache Pool. The following nesting season (1993), the fourth eagle began forming a pair bond with a fifth bald eagle. Although the fifth bird was a sub-adult and not reproductively mature, this pair of eagles constructed a nest in the south end of Tschache Pool. For the first time in the history of the refuge, two nests of bald eagles produced young during the 1994 nesting season.

Montezuma's pair of bald eagles used their initial nest from 1994 through 1998, producing a total of 8 young. This nest was located in the southern end of Tschache Pool in a dead tree. This nest provided visitors excellent viewing opportunities. The Labor Day storm of 1998 also blew this tree down. It should be noted that the loss of this nest tree, in particular, was actually a blessing. The integrity of the nest tree had long been a concern. Losing the tree when young where in the nest would have been much worse than losing the nest in September.

The pair took up housekeeping in the tree line just east of Tschache Pool. They continue to use this nest (it is much easier to track and write about the pair than the trio).

Bald Eagle Facts: 

  • Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus.
  • Our nation's symbol
  • Only species of eagle unique to the North American continent.
  • One of the largest birds of prey in North America. Males: 3 feet from head to tail; weigh 8 to 10 lbs; wingspan about 6 1/2 feet. Females: slightly larger than males - 3 1/2 feet from head to tail; weigh 10 to 14 lbs; wingspan up to 8 feet.
  • Live for 25 - 35 years in the wild.
  • Usually mate for life (If one dies, the other will seek a new mate).
  • White head and tail feathers are characteristics of adults.
  • Mature at 4-5 years of age (reproductive maturity).
  • Immature eagles lack the white head and tail. Mostly chocolate brown with varying amounts of white on the body, tail, and underwings.
  • Nests: large stick structures, usually high in large trees near water. Nests are reused and added to each year. The nests are 5-6 feet wide by 3-4 feet tall. Eagles nest once a year. 1-3 eggs are laid, with 35 days of incubation. Birds fledge (leave the nest for the first time) at 10 to 12 weeks.
  • Food: fish, carrion (dead animals), mammals, snakes and other birds.

A Brief History of Bald Eagles at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge 

  • Bald eagles were observed using the area and attempting to nest during the ten-year period of 1950-59.
  • Young were produced twice between 1950 -59 (2 in 1955 and 1 in 1956).
  • The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began the Bald Eagle Hacking Program at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in 1976. This program was the first of its kind on the North American Continent (the only continent where bald eagles occur).
  • A total of 23 bald eagles were released at the Refuge between 1976 and 1980.
  • Three bald eagles (2 males and a female) were observed on the Refuge during 1986. The two males were identified as "hacked" birds because of visible wing tags. One male was released from Montezuma in 1978 and the other was released from the Oak Orchard hack site in 1982. The female did not have any visible tags.
  • In 1987 the three bald eagles (now referred to as the trio) produced young, the first bald eagles to hatch at Montezuma since 1956.
  • A fourth bald eagle was observed on the Refuge throughout 1992.
  • The fourth bird began forming a "pair bond" with a fifth bald eagle in 1993. Although the fifth bird was a sub-adult (4 years old) and not reproductively mature, this pair began construction of a nest in 1993.
  • For the first time in the history of the Refuge, two nests of bald eagles produced young during the 1994 nesting season.
  • In 1995 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upgraded the bald eagle's status from endangered to threatened in all of the lower 48 states, except in the Southwestern Recovery Region (primarily New Mexico and Arizona) where its status remains endangered.
  • The Labor Day Storm of 1998 blew down both eagle nest trees. During the winter, two new nests were constructed on the eastern edge of Tschache Pool. Although the pair of eagles successfully hatched young in 1999, the trio abandoned its nesting attempt. It is believed the two nests were too close (1/4 mile) and there was too much conflict between the groups. In September of 2000, the trio's latest nest site was located south of Armitage Road. The future nesting of eagles at Montezuma will continue to be very interesting.
  • Several immature bald eagles are regularly spotted around the refuge. The Main Pool Observation Tower Area has been a popular spot for observing immature eagles. When mature, will these birds nest in the Main Pool area? Only time will tell. The return of bald eagles to the skies of the United States is an Endangered Species Act success story. Continued public interest and protection of habitat will ensure a bright future for our national symbol.

Osprey 

The history of osprey using the refuge is as interesting and confusing to write as the history of bald eagle using the refuge. According to the 1974 annual refuge narrative, an osprey was first noted using the refuge in 1974. Annual observations of an osprey continued through 1978. The 1979 narrative states "a peak population of 3 osprey were observed and there was a false nesting attempt on Tschache Pool."

"The first recorded successful osprey nest in central New York in over one hundred years" was reported in the 1980 annual narrative. That nest was on Tschache Pool and fledged 2 young. In 1981, osprey again successfully nested on Tschache Pool, producing 3 young. That nest was blown down in the winter.

Attempts to construct a nest in a snag in Tschache Pool during the 1982 nesting season were unsuccessful as the nest repeatedly fell apart. Using the same snag, osprey were able to get a nest together long enough to produce 1 young in 1983. That nest blew down in mid-fall. Again, the birds constructed a nest in the same snag in Tschache Pool for the 1984 season and successfully fledged 3 young. A second pair of osprey appeared during the 1985 nesting season, but both were unsuccessful. One pair lost its nest in June and the second pair were sub-adults. Bad luck for osprey continued in 1986 with no young being produced. Two young were raised in a nest on Tschahce Pool during the 1987 season.

The Main Pool nesting platform was constructed in the winter of 1987-88. Osprey began using the platform in 1988, producing 2 young. This was probably a very good move, as their Tschache Pool nest was taken over by bald eagles in 1988. A single osprey was fledged from the Main Pool platform in 1989, and 2 young fledged during the 1990 nesting season. No young fledged from the platform in 1991 (raccoon predation was suspected). Tin flashing was installed around the platform post during that winter.

Two pairs of osprey produced young during the 1992 nesting season. The Main Pool nest produced 3 young, and the new nest site, Mud Lock, produced a single chick. A total of 4 young (2 in each nest) fledged from the Main Pool nest and the Mud Lock nest. That winter, a nesting platform was constructed at North Spring Pool.

A third pair began using the area in 1994. That site was located on a utility pole in the muck fields north of the refuge boundary. The Muck nest successfully fledged young (number unknown). The Main Pool nest was abandoned (eggs in the nest), the Mud Lock nest produced 2 young. The same three nests were used in 1995. The Main Pool nest hatched 2 young that were blown out of the nest in June while the Mud Lock nest produced 2 young and the Muck nest again produced an unknown number of young. The three sites produced an unknown number of young in 1996. In 1997 the number of osprey nests using the Montezuma Area (refuge and adjacent areas) jumped to 7, producing 11 young, including 1 on the Main Pool Platform. The seven nests were again active in 1998. Total number of young produced was unknown, but the Main Pool birds fledged 3 young.

Two new nests appeared in 1999. One was atop a high voltage power line transmission tower (a.k.a. the Simone nest) and the other was built on a telephone pole nesting platform that had been constructed on Tschache pool for bald eagle use. The Main Pool nest produced 2 young that year. Nests on Main Pool, Tschache Pool and Mud Lock produced a total of 11 young.

Osprey factsheet (pdf)

Other Birds of Prey

Red-tailed hawks, American Kestrels, northern harriers, eastern screech owls, and great-horned owls are breeders on the refuge. Seasonal visitors include snowy owls, rough-legged hawks, peregrine falcons, merlins, turkey vultures, cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks.

Other Birds 

In addition to the birds already mentioned, the refuge provides habitat for numerous other birds. The refuge has been involved with a MAPS banding station since 1999. The next 2 pages provide information of the MAPS program.

Page Photo Credits — Bald eagle portrait - Susan Rachlin/USFWS.
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2014
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