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Eagle couple preparing for eaglet to leave nest

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

Two love birds at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge are preparing for their second known child to fly the coup.

The bald eagle couple last year became the first at the refuge since 1947.

With an eaglet in the nest, the parents are busy finding food for their young and protecting him from danger, said Refuge Manager Dwight Cooley.

"Most eagles will start nesting in January," he said. "It's a critical time during the first two or three months because of egg-laying and eaglets in the nest."

The parents have a little more experience this time with eaglet-rearing. In May 2006, officials found a bald eagle on a road at the refuge.

They found that the bird wasn't injured, just too young to fly. After 10 days of treatment at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham, they released the bird near its home. That time, it was able to fly.

The eaglet was the first indication that there was a nest at the refuge, said Hudson. He spotted the nest a week later while flying over the refuge in an airplane.

The new eaglet will likely fledge in the next month, said Keith Hudson, a wildlife biologist with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Fledging is when a juvenile eagle takes flight and leaves the nest.

But like many young humans who have recently moved out of their parents' homes, young eaglets that have left the nest will usually stay in the area and occasionally depend on their parents for food until the next nesting season.

"Most of the time, they'll fly to a nearby tree, fly back to the nest, fly to a nearby tree and so on," he said. "The adults will continue to take care of them at that time."

Wildlife officials at the refuge do not mark the eagles for identification and, therefore, do not know if last year's eaglet remains at the refuge.

"There's really no way to tell," said Cooley. "They usually stay around for a while, but sometimes they go ahead and fly north as soon as they can."

The eagle parents are likely the same ones from last year because eagles usually return to the same nests, he said.

Since the nest sighting, refuge officials have noticed a surge in bald eagles in the area, said Cooley.

"Bald eagles are in the area now pretty much year round," he said. "We see adult birds feeding, catching fish, and it looks like they're doing fine."

The bald eagle became the focus of many conservation groups when it was placed on the endangered species list in the early '60s.

Bald eagle populations began to decline in the 1800s when humans started altering the eagles' natural habitats. Their populations saw a sharp decline in the '40s when farmers started using pesticides like DDT.

The Nongame Wildlife Program started a project to save the bald eagle in 1985.

Officials took eggs from Florida to the Sutton Avian Center in Oklahoma, where they were incubated and raised until they were old enough to be released back into the wild.

Ninety-two of those eagles were released from six towers in Alabama over a six-year period.

Because eagles come back to the same area where they first took flight, the program has seen the number of eagles and nests in Alabama soar over the past 20 years.

There's even talk about the eagle being removed from the endangered species list, said Hudson.

"They'll likely be taken off the list this year but will still have protection under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act," he said. "This has been a tremendous wildlife success story, not only for the eagle, but for the act itself."

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