Close-ups of Pittsburgh's eagles bring dose of reality

Watch the eagle cam at www.post-gazette.com/baldeagles


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Bald eagles are majestic, beautiful animals, and the adventures of a nesting pair within Pittsburgh city limits are testament to a new environmental self-awareness. A live video camera focused on the nest in Hays has generated the biggest buzz for a bird since a rubber duck floated into town last summer.

But amid all that majesty and beauty, Pittsburghers have witnessed in high-definition detail the sometimes savage world of nature. Scenes have been occasionally grisly -- the eagles ripping apart fish and small mammals. Ornithologists warn the images will almost surely get uglier -- the struggles of still-living animals brought to the nest for food, and the harsh life and possible death of an eaglet.

Some video bird watchers have rooted for the eagles and urged for compassionate intervention to protect the nest from predation. Scientists disagree.

"Hands off," said Doug Gross of the state Game Commission. "The best thing we could do for these birds is leave them alone."

In 2010 it was big news when a bald eagle pair set up residence in Allegheny County for the first time in at least 150 years. Those eagles, which have since fledged several eaglets on private property in Crescent, were descended from birds imported from Saskatchewan in 1983 and stocked in Pennsylvania as part of the Game Commission's successful bald eagle recovery program.

By January 2014, there were 271 active nesting sites in the commonwealth including three in Allegheny County: the Crescent couple, a pair in Harmar believed to have laid an egg March 4, and the Pittsburgh eagles who live on a steep hillside overlooking the Monongahela River in Hays.

Last year the eagles of Hays attained rock star status among bicycling birders who gathered on Three Rivers Heritage Trail to watch a young eaglet awkwardly flapping away from the nest for the first time.

This year, the presence of the camera has heightened the buzz. Powered by a rechargeable solar cell and set up in December, it was donated by PixController, a Murrysville security camera company, in a public-private partnership with the Game Commission (additional donations were made by communications and technology companies).

The camera provides a live close-up view of the nest with night vision and audio capabilities. The video is available for free over the Internet.

PixController president Bill Powers said viewers started exploring the website while the eagles were refurbishing the nest and engaging in mating behaviors. Page views spiked when news organizations and nonprofit groups linked in. Thousands watched, he said, as the birds' first egg was revealed Feb. 19, followed days later by two more eggs. Bucolic scenes of the parents carefully turning and incubating the eggs were clearly visible on video. PixController posts video clips of milestone moments. The first egg is expected to hatch around March 26.

Enter the raccoon ...

But nature's way turned darker on the night of Feb. 26 when a raccoon attacked the nest. On camera the mother fought off the intruder -- her 7-foot wings spread across the nest as she took a step back and charged, driving the raccoon away. Neither the eggs, eagle nor raccoon were injured.

But Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary, suggested that something else may have died that night -- the innocence of some webcam followers.

"That may have been the first time some people had ever seen anything like that," he said. "I think it really shook them, although from an eagle-loving perspective it could have gone much worse."

Mr. Gross said the eagle-raccoon encounter provided a great educational opportunity into the ways of nature, but on nature's terms.

"It's not always a pretty sight," he said. "Wildlife can be pretty nasty out there -- it's life by hook and claw."

In the days following the dramatic encounter, PixController, the Game Commission and organizations linked to the site received pleas to erect a fence surrounding the nesting tree or otherwise intervene to protect the eggs. Others have suggested giving names to the birds, providing them with food or capturing and banding them so that someone -- perhaps the Game Commission -- could keep track of the eagles and protect them.

"That's just impractical, and it wouldn't be in keeping with our management plan for this species," said Mr. Gross. "Interference at the nest site could frighten them off and they'd never come back. Getting more involved would certainly do more harm than good."

Based in part on the recommendation of Mr. Gross, supervisor of the Game Commission's endangered and nongame bird section, bald eagles were recently removed from the state's endangered and threatened species lists.

"They've reached all the benchmarks established in our management plan," he said. "Eagles are now nesting across the state, they have a 70 percent nest success rate ... and eagles continue to be federally protected. It means the eagles in Allegheny County can succeed, or fail, on their own."

Through March and particularly after the Hays eggs have hatched, webcam watchers should prepare to see more unvarnished nature.

"We're probably going to see, and maybe hear, live prey being eaten in the nest," Mr. Mulvihill said. "We may see another raccoon attack, and this one might be successful. After the chicks hatch they become even more vulnerable. We may see a crow snatch one up or, more likely, we may see bullying in the nest and the last chick to hatch might not make it."

Like other raptors, bald eagles have adopted a survival strategy in which the eggs hatch over several days. When food is plentiful the parents generally feed all of the eaglets. But when food is scarce, the first to hatch are favored. Sometimes the oldest chicks bully the runt, pecking at it, sometimes killing it. The parents don't interfere -- they may eat the dead chick or simply throw it out of the nest.

"It's not a morality kind of issue for animals," said Mr. Mulvihill. "They're just doing what animals do."

In nature, the death of one animal sustains the life of another -- a baby bird dies, a fox family eats. Rachel Handel of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania said watching the eagles can be educational if viewers can avoid emotional bonding with the birds.

"Part of what's so interesting in watching them 24/7 is you don't know what to expect," she said. "There's definitely a lesson to be learned from watching the webcam, even if we witness some harsh things."

Henry Kacprzyk, a biologist at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, said second-guessing nature is rarely the right thing to do. "You saw a mother protect her nest successfully," he said. "But what if the raccoon comes back and makes off with a chick? As an eagle watcher you may think, oh, that's horrible. But from the perspective of the raccoon, it means, 'We get to eat tonight.' "

Human intervention for the management of an animal species, he said -- the reintroduction of Pennsylvania's eagles, the educational goals of the eagle camera, even the careful breeding and transfer of genetically healthy zoo animals -- is quite different than human intervention for the sake of a single animal, or a nesting family. It is damaging to the program at large, he said, to bond with individual wild animals.

"God sets the wheels in motion," he said. "Things happen -- animals live, animals die. You can't, and you shouldn't, attempt to manage every individual animal."


John Hayes: 412-263-1991, jhayes@post-gazette.com.

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