Did I get your attention? If not, how about this:
Rescuing baby eagles. Tree climbing with baby eagles. Sibling rivalry with – wait for it — baby eagles.
Do you really have something better going on than baby eagles?
This story is about baby bald eagles, or, as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists might say, Haliaeetus leucocephalus eaglets. It’s about rescuing them from gruesome deaths and protecting airplanes from bird strikes. It’s about teamwork, innovation, and some highly flexible parenting.
This story is about rehoming baby eagles, one bird at a time.
Airport runways and eagles don’t mix
To an eagle, an airport runway might seem like a great place to nest. There’s open space and sometimes grass or water nearby. Aside from the constant, deadly whirl of airplane engines, an airport runway makes for a charming place to call home.
But there is a constant, deadly whirl of airplane engines, and those engines are attached to airplanes that hit eagles and other birds with alarming frequency. The Federal Aviation Administration maintains a database that keeps track of all wildlife strikes. As of Oct. 16, the FAA had recorded 66 interactions with wildlife at Seattle-Tacoma Airport so far this year, which range from finding a bird or animal carcass on a runway to a bird strike on a plane. Most of the birds are songbirds -- sparrows and finches, for example -- but four of the bird strike records involve eagles.
“It’s definitely a threat to both human and eagle safety when there are eagles near a runway,” said Kate Watts, wildlife biologist with the Service.
It’s the job of airport employees and USDA Wildlife Services to reduce risk by clearing hazards from the air space around runways. According to USDA, the number of wildlife strikes have increased during the last 30 years, both because of increasing populations of hazardous wildlife species near airports as well as a growing number of airports and flights. Bald eagles are a particularly vexing problem in the Pacific Northwest where populations have been growing in both urban and rural areas. Hazing, along with habitat and prey management, preventing nest construction, and even egg removal are methods typically used to manage risk of eagle strikes at airports.
The conservation power of permits: It’s awesome, we promise!
Permits aren’t as cute (or fun, or loud) as baby eagles, but they’re important. Permits make conservation possible. They’re like the high school hall pass for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Permits are the legal tool by which the Service allows the public to engage in lawful activities that would otherwise not be allowed. For example, an eagle depredation permit allows people to haze or trap bald or golden eagles that pose a risk to human or eagle health and safety. A migratory bird rehabilitation permit allows organizations to help sick, injured, or orphaned migratory birds for the purpose of getting them back into the wild. The Service’s permitting program has helped contribute to the bald eagle’s remarkable recovery, from being in danger of extinction in the mid-20th century to delisted from the Endangered Species Act in August 2007.
During the spring of 2023, USDA told Watts that they had found active bald eagle nests at two Washington airports that were human safety emergencies. USDA had a few options to deal with the nests. The first option, hazing, would allow USDA to continue to haze the eagles out of the area under an eagle depredation permit. Hazing on airport runways involves using non-lethal methods such as pyrotechnic shells called screamers, flares, lasers, propane cannons, and other loud noises to drive away the birds. However, hazing would risk disturbance to the eagle nests and elevate risk of bird strike, and previous experience had shown that even with ongoing hazing at the airports, the eagles wouldn’t be deterred from nesting.
There was one more big issue to contend with: the three eaglets in the nests.
USDA could also have sent the eaglets to a rehabilitation facility until they fledged, but raising a bald eagle to go back into the wild after fledging doesn’t have a high likelihood of success. The eaglets can become habituated to humans, and the facilities also need a surrogate parent eagle that’s capable of teaching the youngsters the skills to become wild eagles. Raising eagles is also expensive. It can cost more than $10,000 to rehabilitate an eaglet to a point where it can fledge and return to the wild. In comparison, it only costs approximately $250 to rehabilitate a songbird until its ready to fledge.
“Baby eagles are super needy,” Watts said. “There are some limitations in bringing an eaglet into captivity, and the hope is that you can quickly turn them around and find somewhere for them to live in the wild.”
This time, USDA did something relatively unusual for the Pacific Northwest: Instead of leaving the eaglets in captive care until they fledged, they applied to move the eaglets into foster nests. Two permitted migratory bird rehabilitation facilities in Washington, Sarvey Wildlife Care Center and West Sound Wildlife Shelter, cared for the three eaglets for their first month. The eaglets were then the right age, and the situation seemed appropriate to try something innovative.
Finding a perfect foster nest
Foster nests for baby eagles? You bet.
“There are certain criteria that these foster nests had to meet,” Watts said. “The stars need to align to have a high likelihood of success.”
What does a perfect eagle foster nest look like? First, the foster nest needs to have eaglets within one week of the rehomed young, and there can only be one or two existing eaglets. Because eaglets can sometimes be aggressive toward one another, it’s important to put a new eagle into a situation where it’s most likely to be accepted by its new siblings and parents and there are enough resources to be partitioned to all the young.
“Essentially, the eagle parents are so committed to the existing young in their nest, and they’ve put so many resources into raising the young they’ve produced, that they can be fairly accepting of the new chicks,” Watts said. “But there are no guarantees in nature.”
Second, eaglets must be at least 4 weeks old but can’t be old enough to be at risk of jumping – something fledglings might try as they begin to test their flight skills.
The final criterion for a foster nest is that it needs to be in an accessible tree. The tree needs to be climbable by a human — how else is that babe going to get in there? — and it needs to be on approved land.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Parks, the Oregon Department of Transportation, King County, Columbia Land Trust, Salem Audubon, the City of Salem, and citizens all pitched in to help find homes for the eaglets. Watts and the team eventually landed on three nests that would work, and Portland Audubon provided hoteling of eaglets (including thawed fish and low lighting) during foster nest placement.
Tree climbing for love (and eagles)
Environmental contaminants specialist Jeremy Buck has been working for the Service for 30 years. In 2008, he learned how to climb trees as part of a study on contamination in bald eagle eggs in the Columbia River Gorge. During the last 15 years, he has climbed trees on behalf of the Service for all kinds of reasons.
None of those reasons may be quite as karmically fruitful as rehoming baby eagles.
“We collected a lot of eagle eggs in the 1990s and early 2000s when we were testing them for contaminants,” Buck said. “We did some great work. It’s in part because of the studies we did that eagles are doing much better along the Columbia River. But there were a number of eggs taken from those nest sites, and being able to put bald eagles back into nests gives me a feeling that I’m improving my karma.”
The first tree Buck climbed was on the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, public land managed by Oregon Department Fish and Wildlife and located on a large island in the Columbia River just north of Portland. He uses a technique called rope walking, which involves throwing a length of rope over a tree limb and then climbing it primarily using his leg muscles. The nest was about 60 feet up in a cottonwood tree, and Buck was able to set up in a tree crotch just below the nest.
“I got just to the rim of the nest and didn’t want to poke my head over and scare the chicks,” Buck said. “I just hoped that when I put the bird down at the rim of the nest he would sense the nest material on his feet and just walk right in. So I propped him up there and just kind of pushed him from behind and then ducked my head down right away. And sure enough, he just walked right into the nest. The other eaglet had its wings spread wide and was hissing loudly, but it quieted down after a few minutes. So I just zoomed back down out of the tree and we got out of there.”
The second eaglet Buck placed in a huge cottonwood tree in Dayton, Oregon, also settled successfully. The nest was 70 to 80 feet in the air, so he used a slingshot to get a rope over a tree limb to get close enough. Buck ended up about 5 feet away from the nest, and so had to shimmy his way over the trunk to get the eaglet home.
“Every one of these nests ends up in some sort of tricky situation that you didn’t foresee on the ground,” Buck said. “It’s actually one of the most fun things about tree climbing. You always have to puzzle something out, and it’s really neat.”
Where are the eaglets now? One of the three eaglets, placed in a tree in Washington prior to Buck’s tree-climbing, fell out of its nest early on. As for the other two, the good news is that we’re not quite sure. The foster eagles successfully fledged and are out living their lives, hopefully far from the runways where their journeys began. Finding a balance between eagles and airports will be an ongoing challenge, but finding foster homes for baby eagles is now a potential solution.