An Elegy for America’s Oldest Bald Eagle

Eagle 629-03142 lived to see its species come back from the brink—and even played a role in the recovery.

A few weeks ago, a Bald Eagle died in Henrietta, New York. It was struck by a car, probably while tearing into a roadkill rabbit carcass. This was no ordinary bird: Eagle 629-03142, age 38, was the oldest wild banded Bald Eagle on record in the United States, and an alumnus of a conservation program that brought eagles back from near-extinction in New York.

The eagle, a male, hatched in the summer of 1977, near a lake in northern Minnesota. At the time, Bald Eagles were on the endangered species list—at their lowest point, in 1963, only 487 breeding pairs remained in the lower 48 states. By 1974, that number had climbed to 791, but the recovery was slow going. The infamous pesticide DDT had been outlawed since 1972, but it was still playing havoc with birds, as leftover DDT permeated the eagles’ bodies and weakened their eggshells. In the state of New York, only one breeding pair was left in the wild, in a nest by the shores of Hemlock Lake—and they kept accidentally smashing every egg they laid.

But biologists had a plan to replace New York’s absent eagles. At just a few weeks old, 03142, as he was known, was whisked from his Minnesotan nest and taken to New York’s Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, along with a few eaglets from other states. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), which ran the program, wanted the eaglets to imprint on their new location, not on people, so the biologists raised the eaglets using a low-contact technique called “hacking,” hiding from the young birds and housing them in cages on stilts. These “hacking towers” gave the eaglets an excellent view out over Montezuma Refuge, and kept them safe as they grew.

The biologists hoped that the young eagles would stick around their new home after they fledged—and so they did. A few years later, the male half of New York’s last original breeding pair died, and 03142 took his place in the old nest at Hemlock Lake. Over next few decades, 03142 fathered many young eaglets, doing his part to push his species out of danger.

As his species recovered, biologists stopped tracking 03142’s every move, but he likely stayed at that nest for the rest of his life, since he died only about 25 miles away. He was probably there in 1989, when the NYSDEC eagle recovery program ended, and in 2007, when Bald Eagles were taken off the federal endangered species list. By that point, their population had grown more than tenfold since their initial listing. At last official count, in 2006, there were at least 9,789 breeding pairs of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states, and thousands more in Alaska.

03142 is no longer with us, but he wasn’t the last of the eagles from the NYSDEC program. The Montezuma Refuge currently hosts several active eagle nests, including a rare “triple nest,” watched over by a female eagle… and two males. Both of the males were raised, like 03142, in the hacking towers.

These eagles probably won’t live as long as 03142 (the typical eagle lifespan is about 20 years) and they and their offspring will still face danger from humans. They could die from accidental poisoning, or be illegally shot by hunters or hit by a car, like 03142. But the species’ future is much, much brighter than it seemed 38 years ago.