By Justine Coyne
Point Park News Service
The bald eagle has come back.
Most often sighted on the seal of the United States, the bird all but disappeared from Pennsylvania three decades ago. For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, a pair of eagles nested in Allegheny County last year.
“Normally [bald eagles] nest in secluded, wooded areas, however, they are becoming acclimated to human activity and nesting closer to us,” Tammy Colt, the state’s southwest regional wildlife diversity biologist, said.
As recently as 1980, Pennsylvania had only three nesting pairs of bald eagles. Through a reintroduction program instituted by the state Game Commission in 1983, Pennsylvania had 217 nests statewide last year, producing 204 eaglets.
Though the bald eagle is most commonly found in more northern areas of the state, Colt said over the past decade they are starting to make more appearances around Pittsburgh.
As the eagles return, humans need to know how and whether to interact with them, experts said. Although the bald eagle is no longer listed as an endangered species, they are still considered threatened in the state and protected under the Game and Wildlife Code.
In cooperation with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the National Aviary recently hosted “Eagle Awareness Days” to reach out and educate the public about the bald eagle resurgence in the community. As part of its new monthly lecture series, the aviary introduced the program celebrating the bald eagle.
Gary Fujak, a wildlife conservation officer for western Allegheny County, said the agency has received more calls about bald eagle sightings over the past few years.
“Bald eagles can often be seen along the rivers in the winter months during their migration,” Wildlife Management Supervisor Samara Trusso said. “What is more uncommon is to see them establishing nests in this area during warmer months.”
Two years ago, Fujak got a report that two eagles had nested in Crescent Township.
“The nest is on private property, but the Game Commission has entered into a voluntary agreement with the landowner to protect the eagles’ habitat,” Fujak said.
Trusso said the Game Commission is not aware of any issues the nest has caused for the landowner. She said they have been very welcoming to the new addition on their property.
Fujak, as well as others from the Game Commission, monitor the site of the nest. Last spring, the pair had one eaglet. Fujak said the eaglet left the nest around July 4th: “It was very patriotic.”
After the eaglet left, the nest was abandoned but Fujak said he hopes the pair will return in the spring. The Game Commission has been working recently to keep up the condition of the abandoned nest, which is approximately six feet wide.
“The nests can get to be as big as a Volkswagen,” Fujak said. “We’re just making sure that no substantial damage caused by weather or other elements will keep the pair from returning.”
There have been several recent sightings in Beaver County as well as reports of bald eagle activity near the Sewickley Bridge.
“We’ve received word there have been sightings of a pair in the area of the nest,” Fujak said. “I’m very optimistic they’ll come back. They may even have two eggs this year.”
The game commission doesn’t advertise the location of the nest because human activity could cause the eagles to abandon the nest completely.
“It’s very important to keep human disturbances to a minimum,” Fujak said. “However, in Allegheny County, it’s difficult to have an eagle’s nest without human activity.”
In May of 2011 the Game Commission produced the Bald Eagle Management Plan.
“Our main goal is to improve public education and outreach,” Colt said. “If more eagles are moving into our area, it’s important that the public know what they can do to help the population continue to thrive.”
Trusso said supporting a clean habitat and clean waterways is the best way the public can help the eagle population continue to expand. It is also important to report any sightings of nests or injured eagles to the Game Commission.
“Bald eagles are very subject to leaving areas,” Trusso said. “Don’t harass them. One of the most helpful things the public can do is just to keep their distance.”