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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 8:44 pm | Fair 48º


Eaglets Making Remarkable Recovery from Attack on Santa Cruz Island

One bird about ready to fly the nest as biologists struggle to explain what prompted another eagle to strike.

Peter Sharpe of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, left, and veterinarian Scott Weldy tend to Skye, the eaglet that broke its wing in an unusual attack by another eagle. (Institute for Wildlife Studies photo)

[Editor’s note: The attacking eagle in the May 19 incident has not been identified. Initial reports suggested the bird had been fed previously in the nest, but GPS tracking placed that bird elsewhere on Santa Cruz Island at the time of the attack. The article has been corrected below.]

Two baby bald eagles, whose mauling by a young adult eagle was captured on a Santa Cruz Island Webcam, are recovering from their injuries nearly a month after the bizarre attack.

The 11-week-old fledglings — named Spirit and Skye — are among the first handful of bald eagles to hatch naturally on the Channel Islands since the species disappeared there some 50 years ago.

The May 19 attack left researchers puzzled. For no apparent reason, a young adult eagle began harassing the baby birds, and eventually knocked them out of their nest, sending them 30 feet to the ground. A Long Island, N.Y., bird enthusiast who witnessed the attack while she was watching the popular 24-hour EagleCAM alerted biologists, who rushed to the rescue.

Spirit, the eaglet with a cracked beak, is recuperating rapidly from its injury and is about ready to fly away from its man-made nest. (Institute for Wildlife Studies photo)

Spirit suffered a cracked bill, but is getting ready to fly away from a man-made nest known as a hack tower. Skye is still recuperating from its broken wing at an animal hospital.

“They’re both pretty healthy,” said Gabrielle Dorr, outreach coordinator with the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program, which is funding the $6.2 million restoration effort. “Of course, once they fledge, they’re subject to natural death. Some of the birds don’t make it to the mainland from the island.”

The birds 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 ‘60s the birds were completely wiped off, having succumbed to the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide that rendered their eggs too brittle to properly hatch.

The pesticide, which was banned in the ‘70s, 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 the Los Angeles area.

The responsible company, Montrose Chemical Corp., was later ordered to pay the federal government a huge settlement. A portion of that settlement is being used to bankroll the bulk of the popular Webcam project, which began two years ago. (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.)

The hatching of the first baby bald eagle on the islands in 50 years drew national media attention in 2006. Since then, seven birds have hatched. Two died in a similar accident last year, Peter Sharpe of the Institute for Wildlife Studies told Noozhawk on Monday.

The attacks are strange because the culprits don’t appear to be going after food or exhibiting territorial behavior, he said.

“They might be just viewing them as competition,” Sharpe added. “It’s really anybody’s guess.”

The attacking eagle in the May 19 incident has not been identified. Initial reports suggested the bird had been fed previously in the nest, but GPS tracking placed that bird elsewhere on the island at the time.

Before getting shut down in the 1970s, Montrose was piping DDT straight into the ocean. The DDT would be ingested by fish, which in turn were eaten by the eagles.

Although the levels of DDT in the area’s waters have fallen, traces of the pesticide still exist in the sediment on the ocean floor, and can still be found in the birds.

In fact, as late as the 1980s, a Channel Islands restoration effort on Catalina Island failed to produce naturally hatching bald eagles because the lasting levels of the pesticide were still too high. Six years ago, researchers chose Santa Cruz Island because it is farther away from the source of the problem. Apparently, it worked.

Officials said they don’t believe DDT is what prompted the attack, which was uploaded onto YouTube by a Webcam enthusiast.

“DDT doesn’t manifest that way,” Dorr said. “Usually, when we see DDT, we see it in the eggs themselves.”

She added that the bizarre behavior may be a result of too many birds sharing so small a space.

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.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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