The ravenous robber, his eyes shadowed by a black mask, crept quietly toward the three sleeping babies with dark intent. Hearing him scrabble among the sticks, the babies' dozing mother snapped awake and turned to face the attacker, who rushed toward her in hope of a lucky grab but was driven back. Her babies had lived to hatch another day, maybe.
Another day, another dramatic night in the nest.
The brief but intense confrontation in the bald eagle nest in Hays, captured live Wednesday night by a nearby video camera installed in December, gave nature fans an unvarnished look at the game of survival -- the real kind -- for both eagles and raccoon.
Bald eagle has to fend off another attack
The bald eagles nesting in Hays had another unwanted visitor. This time a hawk or immature eagle did a fly-by at the nest. Previously, a raccoon attempted to snatch an egg. (Video courtesy of PixController; 2/28/2014)
Trouble is, some fans want the kind of help for Team Eagle, such as a fence or an unclimbable shield around the tree holding the nest, that state game officials say goes against Mother Nature's rules.
"When you're dealing with nature, there are things out there that eat other things, and it truly is survival of the fittest," said Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau, who said the commission was contacted by a worried eagle-cam viewer soon after Wednesday's attack. "People have an attachment to the eagles, but that doesn't mean it's going to work out for the eagles -- we hope it does, but we need to let nature take its course."
In addition, he said, federal law prevents people from coming within 660 feet of an eagle nest in an attempt to protect the birds from harassment or undue disturbance by humans. Marching in to build a fence or place a shield around the tree likely would prompt the eagle to fly away, Mr. Lau said, potentially leaving the eggs bare and cold for too long or leaving young fledglings to toddle around the nest without a parent.
"If the adult flies off and they're just little eaglets that don't know any better, they'll often end up jumping" from the nest in search of their parents, even if they can't fly yet, he said. "People need to understand that adding people to the mix isn't always the best thing."
In any case, Pennsylvania's eagle population has grown so much -- from about a dozen breeding pairs 20 years ago to about 250 breeding pairs today -- that the game commission can't possibly police all the nests, even if its officers weren't also busy protecting game and other wildlife, said Pittsburgh's National Aviary ornithologist Bob Mulvihill. The Hays eagles, having fledged an eaglet last year, have shown they have fine survival skills, he said.
The only difference is that last year, the wildlife camera now capturing every move in real time hadn't been installed, so eagle fans missed most of the gory details of life in the nest.
About a dozen people who regularly watch the eagle-cam have contacted him with various worries, including whether the eggs can hatch in the severe cold the region has recently experienced. Being able to see every eagle move has its downside, he said.
"The general public is definitely stressing over every detail," he said.
And on the off-chance a baby takes a tumble, as happened with last year's eaglet, who landed on a branch 20 feet below the nest and was fed there by his parents until he could fly?
Well, a relatively mature eaglet might survive a short fall to a branch, but a fall to the ground probably would prove fatal, Mr. Mulvihill said. If the eaglet did happen to survive, he said, observers should call the game commission, even though its policy is not to intervene.
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