To the horror of bird enthusiasts watching a 24-hour Webcam, two baby bald eagles were attacked in their nest and knocked 30 feet to the ground by a young-adult bird of the same species this week on Santa Cruz Island.
The Monday afternoon incident, which someone streamed onto YouTube, left one of the eaglets with a broken wing and the other with a cracked bill. Both of the 7-week-old twins were taken to a veterinary facility in Orange County, where they are recovering, said Yvonne Menard, a Channel Islands National Park spokeswoman.
‘They are doing well,” she said Tuesday. “They were alert, which was a good sign.”
The fledglings are part of a 6-year-old effort to restore the bald eagle population on the Channel Islands. As late as the 1950s, the islands were home to at least 40 bald eagles. But by the 1960s the birds were completely wiped off, having succombed to the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide that rendered their eggs too brittle to properly hatch.
The pesticide, which was banned in the 1970s, put the bald eagle on the brink of extinction nationwide, but was exceptionally devastating to the species in Southern California, as DDT was manufactured in Los Angeles.
The responsible company, Montrose Chemical Corp., was later ordered to pay the U.S. government a huge settlement. A portion of that settlement is being used to bankroll the bulk of the popular Webcam project, which started in 2006. (Much of the project’s equipment and expertise has been donated by the Ventura County Office of Education, which has partnered with Channel Islands National Park in the endeavor.)
Monday’s incident left bald-eagle experts on the islands baffled.
“I have never seen anything like this in my career as an eagle biologist,” Peter Sharpe of the Institute for Wildlife Studies said in a statement Tuesday. “The EagleCAM allows us and enthusiasts to observe live bald eagle behavior and learn more than previously known.”
In a sign-of-the-times illustration of the Webcam’s far-flung influence, biologists working on the island Monday were alerted to the attack by a woman watching the video stream in Long Island, N.Y.
One of the site’s most avid viewers, the woman has posted some 19,000 comments on the Web site since its inception in the summer of 2006, Menard said. Due to the woman’s familiarity with the project, she knew at least one of the biologists’ cell phone numbers.
When the biologists got the call, a handful of them hustled over to the nest site and found the two chicks buried in brush on the ground beneath the nest. Looking up, the scientists saw the culprit in “aerial combat” with what they believed to be one of the parents.
To calm the injured fledglings — named Spirit and Skye — the biologists placed hoods over their heads and brought them to a safe location.
The researchers hope to track down the attacker in an effort to better understand its unusual behavior. Like most of the eagles raised on the island, the young-adult bird is probably wearing a tracking device, unless it has managed to tear it off, which some of the eagles do, Menard said.
Meanwhile, the baby birds will not return to their nest at Pelican Harbor, on the north side of Santa Cruz Island. Instead, they likely will be placed in an artificial nesting tower on the island, Menard said. There, the nestlings will be fed by biologists until they get old and strong enough to fly away on their own.
The project to restore the population of bald eagles to the Channel Islands began in 2002. Researchers started with 60 bald eagles, some of which came from the San Francisco Zoo.
About 40 birds remain on the islands. Some have tried to fly across the channel, dying en route. Others have turned up dead in places as far away as the Nevada-Utah border. A couple of the birds have perished after being hit by vehicles while flying low for food.
In 2006, the Channel Islands witnessed its first natural hatching of a baby bald eagle in 50 years, an event that made national headlines. A second eaglet hatched in 2007, followed by Spirit and Skye this year. At one point during the birth of the birds in early April, about 700 people were watching the event simultaneously on the Webcam, Menard said.
In addition to restoring the birds’ presence on the Channel Islands, the bald-eagle project is an attempt to trace the levels of DDT in the area, and determine the pesticide’s lasting effects on the birds, Menard said.
“It has a long half life,” she said.