Do Pittsburgh's bald eagles have an empty nest?

Youngster likely hitting the trail amid push to cut 'threatened' tag

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As the juvenile bald eagle from a riverside hill in Hays flies off to build a life of her own, the state Game Commission's Bureau of Wildlife Management has recommended that eagles get an upgrade from "threatened" to "protected" status statewide.

The juvenile eagle, which was hatched April 15 and fledged in early June, has entertained onlookers through the summer with its squawks and ungainly early attempts at flight. Robert Mulvihill, ornithologist of the National Aviary, said the young bird hasn't been seen for a week.

"This is about the time bald eagles begin to migrate south," he said. "Eagle watchers are reporting they have not seen the young bird for about a week, [but] some watchers said they've heard it in that time."

The parents, once appearing grand and domineering, now look kind of frumpy. That's not from raising young. They're molting -- losing and regrowing some of their flight feathers prior to migration. Mr. Mulvihill said there's some scientific interest in when the mating pair will fly south and their destination.

"We don't have a [recent] history of bald eagles nesting in Western Pennsylvania. The question is, will these birds move now or will they stay until the rivers freeze?" he said. "It's all too new to tell. The adults are molting heavily -- that might be indicative that they'll stick around until the river ices."

Doug Gross, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist and supervisor of the endangered and nongame bird section, said the nesting success of the Hays eagles was a contributing factor in the Bureau of Wildlife Management's recommendation Monday to remove bald eagles from "threatened" status.

As part of one of America's greatest wildlife success stories, the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2007. In 2005, Pennsylvania delisted the bird as an endangered species and reclassified it as "threatened." In September, the Board of Game Commissioners could approve, reject or table the bureau's recommendation.

If approved, bald eagles would have the same state protections as other nongame birds, plus federal protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Lacey Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which provides for civil penalties of up to one year in jail or a $5,000 fine for a first offense, and criminal convictions with fines as high as $250,000, for those who harm or disturb eagles.

"I think it's appropriate," Mr. Mulvihill said. "The birds have met the criteria set years ago. When you've got more than 250 nesting pairs in the state, and all signs that the population is healthy and growing, there's no reason to continue saying they're threatened."

Mr. Gross said 266 nesting pairs were confirmed statewide this year, and he suspects the existence of additional unconfirmed nesting sites. In 2012, state researchers documented 237 nesting pairs statewide.

The Game Commission's bald eagle management plan calls for eagles to be removed from "threatened" status if all of the following criteria are met for five consecutive years:

• At least 150 active nests are documented statewide.

• Nesting sites show at least a 60 percent success rate.

• An average of at least 1.2 eaglets are fledged per successful nest.

• Successful nests are confirmed in at least 40 counties.

Mr. Gross said the first three of those requirements have been met for a five-year span. This year eagles will have exceeded the 40-county criteria for a fifth straight year. Bald eagles now inhabit 56 of 67 counties statewide and continue to expand their range, including this year's establishment of the Hays site, the second year of successful nesting on private property in Crescent, and a failed attempt at nesting in Harmar.

Since the launch of the Game Commission's bald eagle reintroduction program in 1983, more than 1,000 eaglets have been hatched in Pennsylvania. That program, which began with 12 seven-week-old eaglets taken from nests in Saskatchewan and brought to Pennsylvania, was funded in part by the Richard King Mellon Foundation of Pittsburgh and the federal Endangered Species Fund.

The wildlife management manpower that directly and indirectly nurtured and protected the birds and their habitat throughout their recovery was funded by the Game Commission, which receives no money from the state's general fund. Most of the agency's resources come from the sale of hunting licenses, timber and mining leases on state game lands, and federal excise taxes on hunting equipment and ammunition. About 5 percent of the agency's budget is spent directly on nongame species.

"I think a lot of the people who've watched the eagles in Pittsburgh probably don't know where the wildlife management funding comes from," Mr. Gross said, "and I think they'd probably be happy to contribute if they knew how to do so."

neigh_city - state - environment

John Hayes: or 412-263-1991. First Published August 15, 2013 4:00 AM


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