Eagles in the Los Angeles area still have problems reproducing because of DDT pollution which weakens the shells of their eggs. Producer Ilsa Setziol follows a team of researchers as they snatch eggs, hatch them in captivity, then return babies back to the nest.
CURWOOD: Bald eagles have made a dramatic comeback from the edge of extinction in many places, but not California. There are only about 150 breeding pairs in that state. In southern California, bald eagles are only found on Catalina Island, off the coast, near Los Angeles. And, as KPCC's Ilsa Setziol reports, these eagles are still threatened by the same chemical that nearly wiped them out, decades ago.
[far-off voices: ready to go? Yeah. All the way...]
SETZIOL: On the shoulder of a popular sight seeing road, three biologists are discussing how to climb one of Catalina Island's many large eucalyptus trees. Cradled in the tree's upper limbs is a bald eagle nest. The biologists are here on an unusual mission: they're going to steal the eagle's eggs. Peter Sharpe, from the Institute for Wildlife Studies, says taking the eggs is the only way to save the unborn chicks.
SHARPE: This is the first major climb that we've had to do. We hopefully can do it in about 20 minutes. At this early stage in nesting, they have a tendency to abandon the nest, if we keep them off for about 20 minutes or more.
SETZIOL: Catalina's bald eagles are so highly contaminated, they can't reproduce without human assistance. For nearly 40 years, Montrose Corp. manufactured DDT in Los Angeles County, and discharged tons of the pesticide into local sewers. Today, the water's off the L.A. coast are still tainted by the nation's largest deposit of DDT. The chemical accumulates in eagles, as the birds consume contaminated animals lower on the food chain. DDT weakens the shells of the eggs, to the point where they can break under the weight of the nesting birds.
One of Sharpe's assistants unfolds a ladder, while biologist Kevin Ryan straps on climbing spikes and prepares to scale the tree. Sharpe offers Ryan some last minute instructions.
SHARPE: Just sort of gently roll the egg into your hand. First I'd put--if there's only one egg, put two fake ones, we want to put at least two, in case the ravens do come in and steal it, which has been known to happen.
SETZIOL: So why do you need to put fake eggs in there?
SHARPE: The fake eggs just keep them sitting in the nest until we have a chick to put in. Whoop, there goes the eagle. Eagle left at 6:42.
SETZIOL: Ryan reaches the nest and begins to remove the eggs. Today's mission is paid for by some of the damages awarded in two of the nation's largest settlements for ecological destruction: a total of $145 million for Montrose, other chemical companies, and local governments.
Here she comes.
SHARP: That's what I like to see, some defense.
SETZIOL: The mother eagle protests the intrusion with a series of clucks, squeals and whistles. Ryan slowly lowers two eggs down to Peter Sharp.
SHARPE: We have two healthy looking eggs. No obvious cracks.
SETZIOL: Sharpe places the eggs in a portable incubator. Within the hour, he will take the first helicopter off the island and hop a plane at LAX for San Francisco, where biologists will try to hatch the eggs. But Sharpe says that will be difficult because the DDT-tainted shells are so thin, and dehydrated.
SHARPE: We only have about 15 to 20% hatching success with the eggs from the island, and I'm not counting on these eggs to hatch.
SETZIOL: Because of the difficulty hatching wild eggs, most of the chicks reared on Catalina are really the offspring of captive eagles at the San Francisco Zoo. Of the 33 eaglets the Institute has placed into nests on the island over the past 20 years, only five were descendants of Catalina birds.
SETZIOL: How old is he?
SHARPE: This is an eight-day old chick; we usually wait till they're about a week old to put them into the nest.
SETZIOL: When he can, Sharpe times his trip to San Francisco so he can return with a hatchling. On a recent night, in his living room, he cared for an eaglet born from a zoo bird.
SHARPE: At this age, they're getting fed every three hours, throughout the daylight.
SETZIOL: Sharpe dunks the beak of a plastic eagle puppet into a bowl of ground quail meat and feeds the chick. He hopes using the puppet will keep the chick from bonding with him instead of its new mother. In between bites the eaglet cheeps so energetically its body throbs.
SHARPE: You're making a mess. Can you pick up your head?
SETZIOL: Finally full, the chick droops into a baby blue sheet, cooing a new, contented call.
The next morning it's time to introduce the bird to its first nest. Sharpe gathers a hefty pile of gear plus eaglet and pet carrying case, and we head for a remote spot. He stops at an opening where hills, studded with small slender oaks, relax into a cliff top meadow. Zipped into a banana yellow suit, Sharpe straps on a safety harness that will hook him to a 100 feet of rope dangling from...a helicopter.
PILOT: We're going to start up the engine in about a minute.
AIR CONTROL: All right, copy that.
SETZIOL: The chopper lifts off slowly, trailing Sharpe under it. He looks as if he's standing in the air.
SETZIOL: The nest is perched 150 feet above the ocean, on a rock pinnacle. Shouting over the roar of the chopper, Sharpe records his trip on a video camera mounted on his helmet. After the parent flies off, he retrieves the fake eggs and deposits a stunned eaglet in a grassy bed. In a scene reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sharp glides over the treetops to a smooth landing.
SHARP: There was an eagle on there, I couldn't tell if it was a male or female, I just started circling around sort of my elevation, and as soon as I left it was back there, probably within 20 or 30 seconds.
PILOT: 402, 401.
AIR CONTROL: 02.
PILOT: What's going on?
AIR CONTROL: That was the female, and she came right back, and she's brooding the chick.
PILOT: Good to hear.
SETZIOL: The mother eagle begins to care for the baby immediately, apparently unaware, or unconcerned, that it's not her own. Peter Sharpe says the Institute for Wildlife Studies has introduced six eaglets to Catalina this year, bringing the total number of bald eagles currently living on the island to 20. With funds from the DDT settlement the Institute plans to reintroduce bald eagles to other local islands. Settlement dollars will also pay to cover parts of the DDT deposit with clean sand. Sharpe says if clean-up efforts are successful, the biggest pay off will come in about ten years, when the eagles will be healthy enough to reproduce on their own.
For Living on Earth, I'm Ilsa Setziol, on Catalina Island.
[CUT AWAY MUSIC-Trygve Seim, "Search Silence"]
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