The eagle, a female in her fifth winter named Pinhoti, was one of two captured Jan. 31 by volunteers and Forest Service staff hoping to help protect the population of the birds.
The eagles were captured as part of a project sponsored by the state lands division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of West Virginia and Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, said Jonathan Stober, district biologist at the Talladega National Forest.
Researchers hope to learn more about the birds’ movements to help prevent population declines like those in the West that have been attributed to the construction of wind turbines for electrical power generation.
Golden eagles are not resident birds in Alabama, Stober said. They are migratory birds that fly from Ontario and Quebec, where they breed, to winter in the Appalachians, he said. They arrive in Cleburne County about October or November and stay until March or April, Stober said.
In the western United States, there are thought to be about 30,000 golden eagles, but the eastern population is thought to be about 1,500 to 2,000 birds and growing, Stober said.
Jim Wiegand, U.S. vice president of Save the Eagles International and an expert on the western golden eagle, said the western population is declining.
“The worst thing that’s ever happened to the golden eagle is the wind turbine,” Wiegand said.
Between 25 percent and 50 percent of golden eagles are killed in California every year by the turbines of wind farms, fields of wind turbines used to produce energy, he said. Golden eagles have never been on the federal endangered species list, but they have been placed on lists in some states including Maine, Wiegand said. Bald eagles, which were placed on the federal list in 1967, have increased their populations even as the golden eagles are decreasing, Wiegand said. The reason is that turbines are not built in bald eagles’ habitats, he said.
The tracking devices on the birds can help biologists first determine how many birds visit the eastern United States, Stober said. They will also help researchers plot the migration path of the birds. That information can help when determining where to build wind farms to protect the birds from the turbines, he said.
“There’s a lot of wind farm development occurring and there’s a lot of proposed wind farm development,” Stober said. “We hopefully can site wind farms where they have the least amount of impact on the populations.”
The information from the tracking devices also can aid those in forest management to cater to the birds’ needs, Stober said. If the forest service knows how the eagles use the landscape, he said, “We can either make more of that or make what we have better.”
Eric Soehren, a biologist with the state lands division, said the golden eagles found in the eastern United States are thought to be a different subspecies than those found in the West. The eagles in the West are found in wide open areas, whereas the golden eagles here are associated with mountainous areas, Soehren said.
The banding project in Talladega is one of 250 from Maine to Alabama, he said. In Alabama, six birds have been banded in the last three years of the project — five this year. Two more were caught and banded in Jackson County and one in Colbert County this year, Soehren said.
Ray Bittle, president of the Friends of the Talladega National Forest, said the group gave $500 toward a tracking device, which costs about $3,000. He was surprised to find that there were golden eagles in Alabama. When he found out, he went online to learn about them. He also volunteered to be one of the people manning a camouflaged shelter overlooking the bait station set up to attract the birds and hopefully capture one, Bittle said. They gathered in the shelter for three long days last winter with no luck, Bittle said.
“It’s not very glamorous,” Bittle said. “It was cold and windy.”
One eagle took the bait, but the net that was meant to catch it got hung on a branch and the eagle escaped, he said.
This year, they caught two birds, but Bittle wasn’t in the shelter when they caught the birds. He thought he had missed out, but Pinhoti had high lead levels in her blood and had to be treated at Auburn University, Bittle said.
Golden eagles are big, about 16 to 20 pounds; the females are larger, Stober said. They can have a wingspan of 7 feet. They are powerful predators and with their talons have a grip of 400 pounds per square inch, about 10 times the grip of a human hand, he said.
“They can bring down a coyote or a wolf,” Stober said.
But during the lean winters, they often eat the leftover parts of deer shot by hunters. That’s how the eagles can be exposed to lead poisoning, Soehren said. The hunters often leave the guts of the deer in the forest and it can contain bullets, which often contain lead. Lead poisoning affects the birds the same way it does humans, causing them to become confused and unable to hunt or forage for food. Golden eagles can starve to death because of the condition, Soehren said.
Bittle said the university kept Pinhoti for nearly two weeks and when she was ready to be released, they called him to do the honors. He said the bird was surprisingly calm during the release.
“You hold its feet together, so it can’t use its talons,” Bittle said. “Then, I just kind of lifted it up and it flew up in the air.”
It landed in a branch nearby, surveyed its surroundings and preened its feathers before flying away, Bittle said.
“It was a great, great moment,” Bittle said. “I’ll have that ’til the day I die.”
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.