Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons Make Comeback in PA

  • One of the bald eagles on display at an exhibit at the National Aviary. Photo: Emily Balser

  • Christa Gaus, eagle trainer at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side, stands in front of the bald eagle exhibit. Photo: Emily Balser

December 3, 2013
By Emily Balser, Point Park News Service

The bald eagle could be removed from the Pennsylvania Threatened and Endangered Species List in 2014, marking a milestone in the bird’s recovery across the state. Meanwhile, another bird of prey—the peregrine falcon—is also flying in the right direction to become a conservation success story. 

The bald eagle’s recovery would be a milestone for the state’s endangered species list: it would be the first bird to be moved off of the list.

“Bald eagles, as of the 2013 field season, they have achieved all the metrics, the measurements, that would really be necessary for delisting,” said Dan Brauning, wildlife diversity division chief with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The measurements, which are outlined in the state’s Bald Eagle Management Plan, include having 150 active nests for five years. The state also counts the number of counties in which nests are found and how many young are produced from those nests.

“We’ve been able to sustain those numbers for a long enough time period that we don’t think it’s a fluke, a statistical fluke or that something would change suddenly and they would turn around and have to list them again,” Brauning said.

The bald eagle was moved from “endangered” to “threatened” on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1995 and delisted in 2007. Even though it’s made a successful return across the country, that doesn’t mean that each state has a large population. This is why the bird has remained on the Pennsylvania list.

Brauning said that the the state’s Game Commission believes the bald eagle’s population is robust enough to change its status to “protected,” but the issue will be revisited after the agency reviews public comment—the comment period closed November 29.

“We’ll assemble the comment we receive from the public and present that to our board in January and then they will make the final decision,” Brauning said.

Charles Bier, senior director of conservation science with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, said the eagle recovery has been great, but cautioned that environmental threats still remain.

“It’s good to revel in the good news and keep on with the work and the education,” Bier said.

Some of that education includes getting the public involved with recovery efforts and species monitoring. That’s what’s taking place at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side. It offers a place for the public to learn about birds—endangered and not endangered—through exhibits and special programs. One of these programs is Talons!, which currently shows daily at the aviary and features birds of prey, including the bald eagle.

“Working with the endangered species in particular is a real joy,” said Christa Gaus, eagle trainer at the aviary. “It’s something that we’re all very passionate about because it does give us a chance to bring (the species to) people that may have never seen a bald eagle in the wild or a peregrine falcon in the wild. They may have seen one at a distance but didn’t necessarily get a chance to see it up close enough to really appreciate their size, their power, their beauty. It gives us a chance to get them nice and close to the public and give them that experience to inspire (the public) to continue to protect them out in the wild.”

As another outreach effort, the Aviary also monitors falcon nest cameras at the Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh and also at Point Park University, Downtown.

“With us partnering with the nest cam over at Pitt, you get people that have followed our link on our website for a long time,” Gaus said. ”Whenever anything happens with them, sometimes I feel they know before we do.”

One local woman who has been active with the peregrine falcon nest at University of Pittsburgh is Kate St. John, a bird enthusiast who also runs a bird watching blog. She discovered a pair of peregrine falcons in the area in 2002 and played an active role in getting the nest set up.

“I saw a pair of peregrines in courtship flight on top of the Cathedral of Learning,” she said. “I was certainly wowed.”

A bird-lover since adolescence, St. John knew the significance of spotting a pair of peregrine falcons in Pittsburgh—a rare occurrence because the bird was listed on the state endangered species list and had only recently been taken off of the U.S. endangered species list a few years before. There was only one other nesting spot in the city at the time, which was located at the Gulf Tower.

After some time working with the state Game Commission, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the university, a nest was constructed for the falcons at the Cathedral of Learning.

“The nest went up in February and the birds claimed it almost in hours,” she said.

That same pair, named Dorothy and E2, still nest in that location to this day, which St. John has continued to monitor since its creation.

As with the bald eagle, a management plan has been set up for the peregrine falcon. The goals for the peregrine falcon include having 22 nesting pairs, which is half of the original population before the decline. Mulvihill said there are only 12 nesting pairs at this time.

“We’re many years away from achieving those goals,” said Bob Mulvihill, ornithologist at the National Aviary.