“It was incredible! They are light—you wouldn’t think so because of how big they are—but they are [light] and they are really soft, especially in the chest area,” explains Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Huey Thomas.
Thomas was one of two lucky people chosen to hold a baby eagle during the annual eagle banding on Tuesday, March 19. Thomas and Sasheen Castaneda heard about the banding and applied to be the candidates selected for this year.
Both were surprised to find out they had been chosen to go and view the banding process. It wasn’t until the day of the event that they received word they would have the chance to not just be there during the banding process, but to hold a baby eagle.
“It was nothing compared to what you see on TV. But I’ll never forget that feeling of holding a baby eagle, feeling her fast heartbeat and how warm she was. I had to wait for a year, but it was worth the wait,” explains Thomas with a smile.
Every year in the spring, the SRPMIC Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Department (EPNR) and the Arizona Game & Fish Department (AZGFD) team up to band the newly hatched baby eagles (eaglets) from nests in the Community. SRPMIC started banding the eagles 12 years ago, working with one nest at the river. Today there are three nests on SRPMIC land.
In 1978, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established a program to increase the bald eagle population after placing the birds on the endangered list in more than 40 states, including Arizona. After being on the endangered list for 29 years, the bald eagle has been removed, but monitoring and protection remains a key component to their numbers remaining at a safe level.
According to the Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee Web site, the three goals are to “(a) establish breeding birds in one or more river drainages in addition to those of the Salt and Verde rivers, (b) have 10 to 12 young produced annually for a five-year period, and (c) identify important winter habitat.” Arizona, New Mexico, the western bank of the Colorado River in California, and parts of Texas and Oklahoma make up the Southwest Region.
The committee has been successful in fulfilling these goals, but the eagles in the region do remain under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the general provisions of Arizona Revised Statutes, Title 17.
Currently there are roughly 65 eagle nests in Arizona, and 55 of them are breeding grounds. The breeding grounds are where a male and female eagle pair shares the nest for breeding. An eagle pair sometimes will utilize one nest for breeding in one year, and use the other nest the following year. The nest is most crucial to their way of life. If the eagles feel the nest isn’t safe in any way, they will migrate to another nest or rebuild in most cases.
There are three active breeding grounds within the Community boundaries. One of the nests is five years old and is, surprisingly, nestled in an oak tree near McKellips Road. The eagles took it over from an old hawk nest.
“We have a unique and special opportunity,” says Brian Gewecke, senior environmental specialist at SRPMIC. “If these baby eagles grow up and become accustomed to all the cars and people, we have the opportunity to start an urban eagle population. This will be the first of its kind in Arizona.”
In the past five years, the female eagle in this nest has had three male companions. The first male was tagged and ended up injuring himself somehow; he died. A second male eagle joined the female in her nest but didn’t stay long; he was from one of the other nests by the Verde River. “The current male is untagged, and we don’t know where he’s from,” Gewecke explained. If the male eagle dies or isn’t a good parent, then the instinct of the female parent is to go and find another mate. However, eagles usually mate for life.
Their lifespan can be anywhere from 17-20 years. Another fact about a nest being so close to the urban area is that eagles need about 40 miles of water to patrol for food, since 80 percent of their diet is fish; these urban eagles consume the fish at Tempe Town Lake. The other two nests share the 80-mile river zone, making it perfect for three nests on the Community’s land.
Gewecke, originally from Nebraska, recalls seeing eagles in his home state, but since he began working here at SRPMIC it has led to a passion in understanding how the eagles behave and doing everything he can collaboratively with Arizona Game & Fish to ensure the eagles’ natural habitat is protected and safe.
On a sad note, this year the eaglets in the nest down by the river all died.
Humans often don’t realize the harm they can cause by coming too close and putting stress on the parents. The eagle parents left their nest, exposing the eaglets to the hot and cold temperatures, resulting in their deaths. The chicks depend on their parents for three weeks after they hatch to regulate their body temperature.