3 baby eagles leave New York

Birds had been moved to Manhattan in June

October 25, 2002|By Robert F. Worth | Robert F. Worth,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - In the end, the eagles left as quietly as they came.

Three of the four baby bald eagles that were brought to Upper Manhattan by the Parks Department in June have flown away, presumably to wilder places.

The fourth was not so lucky. He was struck by an Amtrak train just north of the George Washington Bridge last month, Parks Department officials said. Perhaps New York was too much for the young eagle. Or perhaps he just wasn't clever enough to survive.

`Not a smart bird'

"He was not a smart bird," said Thomas Cullen, an expert falconer who helped bring the birds to the city from Wisconsin and took care of them while they were here. "He did something stupid every time he left the platform."

The Parks Department had transplanted the birds to Inwood Hill Park in strict secrecy. The eagles were expected to fly away at the end of this summer, and officials hope the species will eventually return to nest here for the first time since the 19th century. All in all, the project has been a success, despite the one eagle's grim end, said the city officials and bird experts who oversaw it.

"Three out of four is pretty good," said Alexander R. Brash, the chief of the Parks Department's Urban Park Service. "But it's sad to lose a bird we invested so much in."

Although the eagle survived his train accident, it soon became clear that both his legs were broken, Cullen said. He was taken to the veterinary school at Cornell University on Oct. 3, and was humanely put to death three days later after a last attempt to save him failed.

Like his fellow eaglets, the bird spent his first and, in his case last, New York summer on a 20-foot wooden platform with spectacular views of the Harlem River and parts of Upper Manhattan. Cullen brought them 16 pounds of fresh fish every day, courtesy of Fairway markets.

While his peers taught themselves to fly, taking longer and longer flights from the makeshift nest, the problem eagle just got himself into trouble, Cullen said. He would flap awkwardly onto a distant branch and sit for days, unable to return.

In late August he came down with a disease called roundworm, and Cullen took him down from the nest to cure him. Then he showed signs of West Nile infection. And then came the train accident.

A common fate

As it happens, his fate is common in the wild, said Heinz Meng, an ornithologist and professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Only 30 to 40 percent of eagles survive their first year, he said.

In fact, being hit by cars and trains is fairly common for eagles, Meng said. They often feast on a road kill and are struck when they take off into the clearing.

The other three birds have been a great success, Brash said. They drew crowds of bird- watchers, who gathered during summer mornings to watch them through telescopes as they tested their flying skills. "They were clearly learning to fish and feed for themselves," Brash added.

Brash said that no attempts at vandalism occurred around the birds' platform, which was fenced off and heavily guarded. "Who would have thought you could set up a bald eagle nest in Upper Manhattan and nothing would happen?" he asked.

Even after the eagles stopped returning to Inwood Hill Park, the eagles' location could be tracked through the radio transmitters they wear. The signals have a limited range, but after they disappeared a group of ham radio operators said they had picked up the birds' signals in New Jersey and offered to help track them, Cullen said. Now the birds appear to be beyond the range even of the radio operators.

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