The bald eagle fixes one fierce eye on the meddlesome people below him.
He squawks at them, a plaintive and undignified sound. Then they move, and so does he, taking off in a smooth swoop across the flight enclosure. It is his fifth or sixth run back and forth and he almost knocks his tail feathers against the branches of a tree in the middle of the enclosure.
“He’s getting tired,” said Josh Saranpaa, executive director of the Wildlife Center of the North Coast.
But this is the eagle’s CrossFit. When he showed up at the center to recover from surgery on a broken wing, flying the length of the enclosure was a major workout. He would come to rest on the ground, winded. Now his increased stamina means he’s that much closer to returning to the wild.
When he is released later this month, back to posing on piers or chomping down on dead whales while still looking noble, he’ll rejoin a robust population — one that seems to be reshaping bird colonies up and down the coast.
Poisoning by the pesticide DDT, loss of habitat and shooting contributed to a significant decline in bald eagle populations across the country. By 1963, the birds were in danger of extinction. Following decades of recovery efforts, they were finally removed from the federal endangered and threatened species list in 2007. Oregon’s population grew from a mere 65 nesting pairs in 1978 to more than 500 by 2012.
“The eagle population is doing very well in Oregon,” said Shawn Stephensen, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “We’re finding new eagle nests all the time in new areas.”
But that recovery has come with complex consequences.
In Oregon, there was a distinct shift of common murre colonies from the northern to the central and southern coast, according to a federal research paper published in 2017. The authors — Susan Thomas with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and James Lyons of the U.S. Geological Survey and Patuxent Wildlife Research Center — noted that a surge in bald eagle populations in the Puget Sound region could set off a chain of events that may restructure that food web.
Murres, a seabird common to the region, are often the prey of bald eagles, though eagles are scavengers and will eat just about anything.
“I think we’re just seeing nature take its course,” Stephensen said. “It fluctuates all the time. The populations of different prey species change. The predators, they reflect that.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blamed eagles for a mass dispersal of double-crested cormorants from East Sand Island at the mouth of the Columbia River in May. At one point, 25 to 30 eagles were observed near the colony. The number of cormorants roosting upstream on the Astoria Bridge swelled. In Washington state’s Grays and Willapa bays, observers reported thousands of cormorants while the Columbia River estuary was nearly empty.
The Army Corps had intended to spend the spring and summer months shooting double-crested cormorants and destroying their nests, following a plan set in motion in 2015 to cut the growing colony’s numbers and reduce predation of juvenile salmon. These activities were temporarily suspended after the cormorants abandoned their nests.
The Wildlife Center of the North Coast sees around six to 12 bald eagles a year. The eagle gaining back weight and strength at the center now is a 2 or 3-year old male whose brown head and tail feathers have yet to turn the distinctive white that people identify with America’s national bird. He came to the wildlife center by way of another rehab center farther south.
He was found with a broken wing at the base of the Yaquina Head Lighthouse near Newport and was taken to the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Eventually, he landed at the Chintimini Wildlife Center near Corvallis. After undergoing surgery on his wing, the eagle entered a long recovery period. He was taken to the Wildlife Center of the North Coast because the center’s flight enclosure is about 20 feet longer than the one Chintimini had available.
“Any little bit helps with an eagle,” said Mary Estes, Chintimini’s wildlife rehabilitation program director.
The eagle will be released near the end of the month at a known bald eagle winter roost site off U.S. Highway 30 near Knappa.
“He’s old enough that he’ll probably keep away from the other eagles,” Saranpaa said. “If he was fresh out of the nest, we would have some concerns. Since he came in at 2 or 3 years old, he’s had some time out in the wild to learn to be an eagle.”