Let's Talk About Birds: Bald eagles

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

Our national symbol has quickly become a proud symbol (and minor obsession) for the City of Pittsburgh, too. For weeks, thousands of people were glued to their computers watching and waiting for the first of three eggs in the Hays bald eagle nest on Pittsburgh's South Side to hatch. When it did (Friday), the number of people watching events unfold on the eagle nest cam installed by PixController, Inc. and the Pennsylvania Game Commission ballooned.

After perhaps two centuries without them, the city of three rivers has welcomed back nesting bald eagles, with one pair each nesting along the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers--all within a few miles of Downtown. The bald eagle's return is a very good thing on many levels. Most of all, it means that this iconic species, once close to being extirpated in Pennsylvania and throughout the lower 48 states, is now on a much stronger footing, thanks to determined environmental protection efforts at local, state and national levels.

Leading the way in our state has been the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which is responsible for protecting all of Pennsylvania's wildlife from illegal persecution and with helping to manage endangered and threatened species. The Game Commission faced a tremendous conservation challenge in the early 1980s, when eagle numbers had declined to an all-time low of just a few nesting pairs. To make matters worse, all of Pennsylvania's bald eagle eggs were in one small "basket" in Crawford County in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Thanks to a cooperative effort over the course of three decades to translocate more than 80 bald eagle chicks from selected nests in Saskatchewan to hacking towers along the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, the state's population grew steadily: slowly at first -- because the chicks fledged from hacking towers took five years to reach maturity -- then dramatically. From a low of three nests in one county 30 years ago, the Pennsylvania breeding population now numbers more than 250 nesting pairs distributed across more than 50 counties. One of the last areas of the state to benefit from the rebounding statewide population is southwestern Pennsylvania, so the recent nesting of bald eagles on Pittsburgh's three rivers truly completes the recovery story of this once seriously endangered species.

The eagles could not have made Pittsburgh their home if there hadn't been suitable habitat for them -- and not only cleaner rivers with plenty of fish. Bald eagles also require undeveloped forest habitat near the rivers to provide a protected stand of mature trees in which they can build their huge nests. The wooded tracts that our three pairs of nesting bald eagles now call home might not have remained had it not been for the efforts of generations of conservation-minded Pittsburghers who helped to preserve and protect them from development. The result: We have bald eagles nesting in the 'Burgh, and that's a development that seems to meet with everyone's approval.

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