Bald Eagles Come to the Big Apple

For the first time, the once-endangered bird is nesting in New York City.

A pair of Bald Eagles has shacked up and built New York City’s first eagle nest in at least a hundred years.

The newcomers were spotted earlier this month by a tugboat captain, who watched the pair shuttle nest material to the top of an unused dock on a small uninhabited island just off the coast of Staten Island, the southernmost of New York’s five boroughs. (Another pair of eagles, one sub-adult, the other fully grown, was spotted in the same area last spring. They were practicing nest-making, a behavior common among young birds.)

That the raptors are in the market for city real estate is a good sign. Nationally, the birds were nearly wiped out by DDT before the pesticide was banned in the 1970s, and the population has been climbing gradually ever since, thanks in large part to Endangered Species Act protections and reintroduction efforts. Today roughly 173 breeding pairs nest in New York state, roughly 2 percent of the national population. In winter, the state’s Bald Eagle population jumps much higher when birds from Canada and Alaska fly south in search of areas with open waters brimming with fish—like the Hudson River which circumvents part of New York City.

As the population grows, the eagles will have to travel farther afield in search of food. And that can only mean we’re going to see more and more of them in urban centers “Because eagle numbers are increasing,” says Bob DeCandido, a Bronx-based ornithologist, “this is probably just the beginning.”

The birds are unlikely to become the next tourist attraction, though—New York state discourages revealing the exact locations of nests, to protect against poachers and crowds that might spook them.

“You’re talking about a bird that was federally endangered at one time, the symbol of the United States,” DeCandido explains. “If people get too close they are going to be in big legal trouble.” Warnings aside, he expressed delight at the eagles’ return, mentioning that urban areas often provide great habitat for wildlife, despite their reputation as concrete jungles.

Many other raptors have also found homes in Gotham, drawn by the large numbers of rats and pigeons to feast on. Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels, and Red-tailed Hawks all build nests on Manhattan buildings, and Ospreys, Cooper’s Hawks, and three types of owls breed in Brooklyn and Queens. It’s a good reminder that even birds can make it in the big city.