For backyard bald eagles, death of an eaglet the latest blow

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Bald eagles that nest in a back yard near New Orleans have lost their chick. It’s the latest in years of troubles for the pair of federally protected birds.

The first year, crows ate their eggs. Mottled brown youngsters had to be rescued and rehabilitated for two years running. And the parents had to rebuild their nest after a hurricane destroyed it in October, only to have this year’s chick die there on Wednesday.

The birds are closely watched by neighbors in a tidy suburban Metairie subdivision, where their messy nest tops a 50-foot (15 meter) live oak tree. Although the national bird was removed from the endangered species list in 2007 and is now thriving, several federal laws protect it.

Coastal consultant and photographer P.J. Hahn said Friday that once he knew the latest juvenile had died on Wednesday, he got permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the body.

“The mother flew to the nest after we got down and walked back and forth calling out real loud. It was heartbreaking,” he said.

Now the eagles’ followers, including Hahn, are waiting results of a necropsy.

“When we picked it up, a lot of blood came from its mouth. Was it shot? Did it run into a tree and cause internal bleeding? I don’t know,” he said.

Hahn has been following the pair since the nest was originally built five years ago.

The first year, he said, crows ate their eggs while both adults hunted for food.

“They were new parents, and didn’t know any better. After that they guarded the nest,” Hahn said. One bird stayed with the eggs while the other hunted.

One of the two birds hatched in 2019 was found stumping along a street, unable to fly. It apparently had injured a muscle, Louisiana State University wildlife veterinarians said.

Last year, Hahn said, neighbors called him because a juvenile kept falling into the nest. He got the federal agency’s OK to check on it and, with a Jefferson Parish wildlife worker present, a tree service worker went up in a bucket truck.

Although the eagle quickly flew out of sight, Hahn was able to follow the crows that mobbed it. The man whose yard holds the nest ran with him. When the smaller birds stopped, looking down into a yard, Hahn peered through the fence. There it was.

The men went in but the eaglet lay down to fight with its claws. The other man took off his shirt, which Hahn put over the bird’s head. He then picked it up, covering the sharp talons.

Two hooks on strong fishing line had caught the bird, one at the bottom of one foot and the other in its breast.

“Every time it walked it would pull itself down,” Hahn said.

The LSU Wildlife Hospital rehabilitated that bird, too, he said.

The adults were back when Hurricane Zeta hit southeast Louisiana in October.

“Hurricane Zeta blew the nest out completely,” Hahn said. “Within two weeks, they had a new nest ready to go.”

Though the pair usually hatches two chicks, this year there was only one.

“About two weeks ago, it began flying for the first time. It would fly around the neighborhood back to the nest,” Hahn said.

On Tuesday, a neighbor called: it was just sitting rather than flying or helicoptering — flying straight up and right back down.

On Wednesday the same woman called, saying, “I think something is wrong with the baby eagle. Its wings are draped over the side of the nest.”

Through his longest lens, Hahn could see it was dead.

As it had last year, a tree service donated a bucket truck and crew. The bird was on its back and limp, Hahn said.

A federal agent told Hahn by phone to wrap the body in plastic and put it in a freezer. The Abita Tree Service worker took the wrapped bird to put in a company freezer, and the wildlife agency picked it up Thursday, Hahn said.

The body was not brought to LSU, veterinary spokeswoman Ginger Guttner said Friday.

Regional Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jennifer Koches said she couldn’t say where the body was taken.

“This is an active investigation and the Service has no details to release, at this time,” she said in an email.

There’s no way to know what happened without a necropsy, Hahn said. He said possibilities include the bird eating a rat that had ingested poisoned bait, being shot with a pellet, or suffering internal injuries from a crash-landing so common as youngsters try their wings.

“They fly really gracefully but it’s the landing they have trouble with. I saw one crash into a bush, and he had to break branches so he could fly off,” Hahn said.

With all the problems these eagles have had, he said, “It makes you wonder how many survive in the wild.”

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