Starting a family in New York City is not for the faint of heart—the rent is high, the school system is overwhelming, and stroller traffic keeps getting worse—but that hasn't deterred a young couple of Bald Eagles. The pair has taken up on the South Shore of Staten Island, and they appear to be incubating eggs—making the very first active New York City Bald Eagle nest reported in 100 years, New York City Audubon announced this morning. Local birders have named the male Bald Eagle Vito, and are eagerly awaiting the offspring (Bald Eagle incubation period lasts between 34-36 days, and the incubating behavior was first spotted last week).
“The eagles are engaging in brooding behavior typical of nesting birds incubating their eggs,” says Tod Winston, communications manager and research assistant for NYC Audubon. “Due to the height and location of the nest, it is not possible to actually see into it from the ground.”
The couple’s successful nest appeared several weeks after another eagle couple was observed on Staten Island in early February. That pair, first spotted by a tugboat captain on a little New York Harbor island off the coast, was observed shuttling nest material to the top of an unused dock. The birds hung around the island for a while, but eventually left the area. It’s likely they were subadult Bald Eagles “playing house,” as is customary for young birds (though they may have just moved on to less urban digs to mate). But the South Shore pair stuck around (the exact location of the nest is undisclosed, for the eagles’ protection).
We’re pretty excited that Bald Eagles are making New York City home. The presence of these eagles in such a densely populated human environment means two very encouraging things: the local ecosystem is a lot less polluted than it used to be, and the eagle population is getting large enough that some birds are actually getting crowded out of more remote habitats. That’s a big step for a species that appeared to be heading for extinction just a few decades ago.
By 1963, the national symbol's presence in the lower 48 was seriously depleted—only 487 nesting pairs remained in the lower 48 states, thanks to shooting, habitat destruction, and the use of DDT. (Bald Eagles’ range extends across North America—at their lowest points, eagles were still found in New York and New Jersey, but mostly as scarce migrants.) The ban on DDT in 1972 and introduction of the Endangered Species Act a year later helped the population start to recover, but the eagles still had a long road before they could set up shop in NYC.
In 1976, there was one nesting pair of bald eagles left in all 54-thousand-plus square miles of New York State, living on Hemlock Lake just south of Rochester. The female had accumulated too much DDT in her system to lay viable eggs, so barring the arrival of newcomers from Canada, it seemed New York would soon be without the iconic birds.
A few years earlier, starting in 1971, Dr. Tom Cade at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology had led a program to revive the similarly DDT-ravaged Peregrine Falcon population in the state, using a technique called "hacking." The goal of the process is to raise a young bird by surrogate without getting in the way of their natural progression towards maturity and independent hunting, so the bird can make it in the wild as an adult.
Hacking has its nuances, but the basic idea is pretty simple. First, you bring in baby birds from healthy populations elsewhere in the world and put them in an artificial nest called a "hacking tower"—essentially a wooden box on a raised platform. You feed the birds, but avoid interacting with them. The door to the hacking box is grated so the birds can see out, but it’s locked tight until they're fully fledged to keep them from falling. Once they've grown their flight feathers, you open the door to give the birds a chance to practice flying and hunting on their own (though there’s still food in the box). After a while, their visits to the food supply at the hack box become fewer and farther between, and eventually they go off and find their own territory nearby.
And a quick note on terminology: “Hacking” does not come from the phone, computer or even ‘life’ use—it actually dates back to the 16th century falconers, who called the boards they used to feed their birds “hacks.” Eventually the term came to stand in for the whole process of raising birds to adulthood, which Dr. Cade borrowed from falconers concerned with Peregrine Falcon conservation.
But back to the birds. Dr. Cade had proven that this method could work for raising capable adult peregrines at Cornell, but no one had ever tried to hack an eagle before—a bird of a different order, let alone feather.
With limited other options, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decided to give hacking a shot. They chose the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge near Seneca Falls (home to the Montezuma Audubon Center) as the pilot hacking location after it was found to be free of DDT, and built a clutch of two-story hacking towers in the woods, fitted with blinds to allow caretakers to feed and observe their residents without being seen.
Over the course of the next four years, the program brought in 23 eaglets from the Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin wild, as well as from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife breeding center in Patuxent, Maryland. The hacked eaglets grew and successfully went out into the wild. In 1980 came proof of the program's success: a pair of Montezuma's hacked Bald Eagles were found nesting near Watertown, NY, where they managed to hatch two chicks, one of which made it to fledging.
After the New York program got off the ground, other states began following their lead. New Jersey, which also had only one remaining nesting pair of bald eagles by the mid-1970s, started their own hacking program in 1983, and now has 156 nesting pairs of its own, mostly clustered around the Delaware River and Bay at the southern tip of the state.
After the nesting pair near Watertown was found in 1980, the DEC decided to ramp up their efforts towards a goal of establishing 10 stable nesting pairs of Bald Eagles in New York state, a number that they believed sufficient to sustain a population indefinitely. They reached that goal by 1989, and their belief was soon borne out: today, there are around 200 nesting pairs in the state, according to Montezuma Audubon Center director Chris Lajewski. In fact, there are 10 pairs just within the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge where the hacking began!
Which brings us back to Staten Island. At this point, there are thriving Bald Eagle nests up and down the Hudson Valley, across the Finger Lakes, and throughout New Jersey (the Delaware River and Bay is only 80 miles away from Staten Island). We spoke with Seth Wollney, self-described "pseudo-leader of the Staten Island birding community,” and doctoral student in ecology at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. He also told us that, in recent years, Bald Eagle sightings have become almost commonplace.
"I started out birding 15 years ago," Wollney says, "and was always interested in raptors as a kid, and it was a big deal to see an eagle. But now, it's a bit more like 'oh yeah, there's another eagle'."
This winter Wollney says he saw three different Bald Eagles in one day heading south from his Staten Island backyard. Ironically, the shutdown of the vast Fresh Kills landfill on the southern side of the borough led to a dip in raptor population: "When I was a kid," Wollney said, "we could drive through the landfill and see 15 harriers, 30 red-tails, so on and so forth, just picking off rodents."
Harriers and kestrels in particular, Wollney says, have lost ground in recent years as the landfill closed and more open fields have been developed. But today, birders can find Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, Black Vultures, Merlins, peregrines, Ospreys, and three species of owls.
It's never easy raising kids in the big city, but the Staten Island Bald Eagles seem to have found what every New Yorker dreams of—a nice nest in a friendly neighborhood.