By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 8, 2006
The bald eagle known as George, who is nesting alone near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge after his mate was attacked, apparently is caring for a chick that hatched yesterday.
His mate, nicknamed Martha, was attacked Wednesday by another eagle -- presumably another female seeking to take over her turf -- and is being cared for at a Delaware veterinary hospital. George was being watched to see whether he would take up with the female intruder or try to raise his chicks alone. Either way, the chicks, due to hatch this week, are considered at risk.
So far, the male bird is caring for the nest by himself, and yesterday, he showed the first sign of feeding a chick. From a distance, bridge project environmental specialist Stephanie R. Spears could see him holding fish in his talons, then bending over the nest. Eagles shred food with their beaks and offer tiny pieces to their chicks.
"I think we've got a young hatchling," Spears said from her cellphone as she watched the nest late in the afternoon. "It looks hopeful that it's feeding behavior."
Spears and Craig Koppie, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hope that George can manage on his own for two weeks or so until Martha can return to the nest. But it will be an extraordinarily difficult job because the unfeathered chicks need near-constant snuggling by an adult to keep warm and their demands for food require the parent to leave the nest regularly to hunt. If left for too long, the chicks could be killed by crows or other eagles.
The Wilson Bridge eagles' plight has been topic A for workers at the massive, multiyear construction project, where the pair has been raising chicks on Maryland's Potomac shore since 1999. Several workers left fresh fish on the ground near George's tree-top nest. The bird did not take their fish but left the nest briefly twice to catch his own yesterday.
"There's a lot of concern, to be honest with you," said Randy Graham, a construction inspector. "People want to know how is the bird doing, what's wrong with her. That's the office chatter right now."
Bryan D. Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, said the odds are not in George's favor, given that newborns are so helpless and the demands of parenthood so great. "There's always a chance you could have a really experienced male pull off a miracle," he said, "but it's highly unlikely."
Koppie, whose agency oversees the growing bald eagle population, said that if chicks become imperiled, he would seriously consider moving them to a surrogate nest to be raised by an intact pair of birds, an option with a good track record.
But, he said, "I still believe there is a shot that this will work. . . . I hope it's only one [chick]."
At Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Delaware, veterinarian Sallie Welte said Martha's condition had not changed significantly. She did not try to eat but was being tube-fed. The major risk is that her puncture wounds might become infected before antibiotics kick in, Welte said. One good sign is that she has stopped sitting under a heat lamp in her cage.
"This is a heartbreaker," Welte said. "She was so close to hatching those babies. . . . I think a lot of people are cheering for her."
Koppie and Spears have heard the argument that helping the eagles is interfering with nature. Spears said she has grown more attached to the birds than a scientist should, and Koppie acknowledged that letting the chicks die would not hurt the region's thriving population of eagles. In the Chesapeake Bay region, the eagle population has grown more than tenfold in the past 30 years.
"We need to do what we can with them," Koppie said. "They've gone through a lot. If it means taking a little of our time helping the clutch survive, it's the right thing to do. Biologically, does it make a difference? No. . . . But we are human, and the perception of the public is we need to do everything we can for the national symbol."