Wildlife: Pennsylvania's bald eagle population soaring

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Recovering an endangered species requires suitable habitat, motivated staff, funding and time. Sometimes it takes decades. When a species has an extended reproductive period and breeds only once each year, time will be the limiting factor in the species' recovery.

Consider bald eagles in Pennsylvania. In 1983, only three pairs nested in Crawford County. That's when the state Game Commission began a seven-year restoration program. With funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the federal Endangered Species Fund, biologists traveled to Saskatchewan where they collected and transported seven-week old nestlings to Pennsylvania. Over seven years, a total of 88 eaglets were relocated to hacking sites on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg and in Pike County. Wildlife management in support of eagles was paid for with hunting license fees, leases on Game Commission properties and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and hunting gear.

By 1988, the state's population of nesting bald eagles had grown to 25 pairs. In three years the population doubled, and by 2006, biologists confirmed 100 nests statewide. Thirty years later -- in July 2013 -- the Game Commission officially confirmed 252 eagle nests in 56 of the state's 67 counties, with additional unconfirmed nests reported.

Patti Barber, a Game Commission biologist with the Endangered and Nongame Bird Section, could barely contain her enthusiasm.

"Young are still fledging, and we're still finding nests," she said. "The nest count for 2013 is up to 264."

Three of those nests are in the Pittsburgh area, one on each of the three rivers. The one overlooking the Monongahela River in the community of Hays just 5 miles from The Point has received the most media attention.

"The Hays location is ideal," Barber said. "It's on a steep inaccessible hillside, yet close to people."

For several months, Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary, has coordinated well-attended eagle watches in Hays. He often called my Sunday radio show with live updates. One young eagle fledged just two weeks ago and is now learning to fend for itself.

Barber expects more bald eagles to nest in this part of the state in the future.

"Right now we have 16 active nests in the southeastern counties of Bucks, Chester, Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery," she said, "so eagles seem to be adapting to urban areas."

Steep wooded hillsides along fish-filled rivers seem tailor made for nesting bald eagles. Barber calls this habitat, "almost as wild as a place can be in an urban setting."

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Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Rd., Cameron, WV 26033.


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