NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 22, 2014) – Nurturing baby American Bald Eagles in a man-made crib atop a 23-foot tower seems like a tall tale, but that is exactly how biologists carried out a conservation plan in the late 1980s to restore the nation’s symbol to the upper Cumberland region.
From 1987 to 1991 a total of 44 eagles were transplanted from nests in Alaska, Minnesota and Wisconsin and then reared, tagged and released on the shoreline of Dale Hollow Lake near Irons Creek. The team utilized a technique called “Hacking” to care for then release the birds of prey in hopes they would someday return to the vicinity of where they first took flight to nest and reproduce.
During that span, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, Tennessee Valley Authority, Tennessee Conservation League (now Tennessee Wildlife Federation), Tennessee Technological University, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service in Alaska, Boy Scouts of America, Wildlife Preservation Corps, and local volunteers had a role in reintroducing the eagles to habitats along waterways in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Patty Coffey, deputy chief of the Nashville District Operations Division, is the wildlife biologist who served in the Planning Branch as the project manager of the Eagle Restoration Program nearly three decades ago.
She said that eagles declined in Tennessee between the 1950s and 1970s because of the insecticide DDT, which caused infertility or thin egg shells that would break under the weight of adult birds. Due to the banning of DDT and restoration efforts, there are now more than 200 eagle nests across the state of Tennessee, Coffey said.
A lot of different agencies and people were involved with the logistics of locating and obtaining young eagles, transplanting them, site preparation and building the hacking tower at Dale Hollow Lake, caring for eagles, and tracking them initially upon their release to ensure a smooth transition into the wild.
“My role was primarily working with the other agencies making arrangements for transportation, actually acquiring them, and then getting them safely back to Tennessee to the hacking tower where TWRA and Tennessee Tech University and the staff at Dale Hollow were extremely involved in making sure, working with volunteers, to get the fish that would feed those eagles while we kept them,” Coffey said.
The maintenance staff and park rangers initially made preparations and worked with Professor Ray Jordan at TTU on the blueprint and specifications for a hacking tower and its preferred location.
Frank Massa, the natural resource manager at Dale Hollow Lake during this project, said his team cleared a section of land near the water to provide a runway of sorts for when the eagles would fly for the first time. A lot of effort also went into building a safe tower that would allow the birds to be isolated yet provide caretakers an ability to observe through a two-way mirror, and added features to easily water and feed them, he said.
“We ended up deciding on the type of tower that was built at Dale Hollow, which was built on utility poles that we got from Upper Cumberland Electric, and built the tower that we actually used there on Dale Hollow Lake,” Massa said.
Massa, who retired from the Corps in 2001, said they used a small dozer to clear brush and young saplings from the field site and they delivered a power truck and crew from Upper Cumberland Electric on a barge to auger holes to put the utility poles in position.
To his recollection, cross braces were installed and the flooring of the tower sat approximately 21 feet off the ground. The maintenance staff built cages facing the lake and an observation area, and installed Burlap behind a two-way mirror so the birds would not see people documenting their activities. The staff also added features allowing for feeding and watering of the eagles without human interaction.
Park Ranger Gregg Nivens, who worked with the wildlife management program at Dale Hollow Lake during the project, said in the 1980s most people didn’t see the American Bald Eagle flying over the lake unless they were fishing in the winter when eagles would come to feed on fish and coots.
After the completion of the hacking tower in 1987, the eaglets took residence. Over the next four years birds arrived in pet crates and they would often be stressed by their travels, human contact and the 90-plus degree temperatures during the summer at Dale Hollow Lake. Veterinarians would check the birds if needed, but often the best thing to get them feeling better involved giving them electrolytes in the form of Gatorade.
“They took a little squeeze bottle and squirted Gatorade in their mouth, and that perked them up,” Massa said.
TTU students were involved with caring for the eaglets on a 23-foot tower 24 hours a day for up to six weeks. They fed eagles with fish and sometimes meat using drawers from the observation area. In addition, water was pumped up through a tube into a container where the birds could bathe and have water. They even had the ability to empty the water to ensure fresh water would be available at all times.
Jordan, biology professor at TTU, directed the hacking program and supervised students observing and caring for the eagles from the time they arrived until they flew away from the vicinity of the lake after being released.
The professor said they were getting hatchlings in the hacking tower from colder climates in the north, which was a major adjustment for the birds, and biology students fed them and kept meticulous records as they acclimated to the hotter temperatures.
“We were trying to turn Yankee eagles into southern eagles,” Jordan said. “It was a lot of observation, long hours just watching the birds, their behavior patterns, and they had to feed them every day. They had to take them fresh water.”
Several TTU students that spent a whole summer living on a house boat and working in the hacking tower observing and caring for the eagles would later go to work for the Corps of Engineers at Dale Hollow Lake.
Stephen Beason, currently the natural resource manager, said he took a topics class in biology that Jordan taught, and the class got involved in the Eagle Restoration Program funded by the Corps of Engineers.
“My job as one of the students was to observe, monitor, feed and document the actions of the eagles that were placed in the tower,” Beason said. “There were two shifts and another student worked with me on the project.”
Beason said as a student he spent a lot of time looking through the two-way mirror and writing down notes about the eagles’ feeding habits, if they were active or still, if they were preening, which is grooming themselves or one another with their beaks, and whenever they flapped their wings.
“It was exciting to watch them grow from the time they were four weeks old till they were fledglings and actually took their first flight,” Beason said.
When Beason wasn’t on the tower, fellow student Jimmy Carter kept watch.
Carter, part contract inspector with the Corps of Engineers at Dale Hollow Lake, served as a student coordinator at TTU during the Eagle Restoration Program. He said he remembers taking copious notes for 12 hours at a time and cutting up trout every day for the eagles to eat.
“It was real fun and I did it for two summers,” Carter said. “We have nesting sites at the lake now. I would like to think that we contributed some to the reintroduction of the eagles in this area.”
The Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery provided some trout to the project and local fishermen donated rough fish like Carp and leftovers from cleaning them to Willow Grove Marina, which stored donations in a freezer to feed the eagles. The Corps required a supply of fish because a growing eagle needed approximately five pounds of fish or meat daily.
“A lot of people helped and supported us with it,” Massa said.
Park Ranger Gregg Nivens was a young employee of the Nashville District at Dale Hollow Lake during the project and said it was his job was to operate the boat and make sure supplies and food were delivered to the hacking tower. They fed them mostly fish, but they occasionally ate meat, he said.
“They made sure they had food for them to eat,” Nivens said. “I believe a wildlife officer even brought in some road kill deer for them and fed them venison too.”
TWRA also partnered with the Corps of Engineers and provided a lot of assistance during the entire hacking process. Bob Hatcher, non-game and endangered species coordinator, spent numerous days at Dale Hollow Lake lending his expertise through the entire process. He passed away in July 2014, but is credited with the release of 284 eagles across the state of Tennessee over a 22-year period.
In 1987, Hatcher explained in a media interview that eagles become imprinted on the area where they first learn to fly and they usually return to nest within 75 miles of that location.
The objective then is to raise the eaglet until it can be released so it can then return in four to five years when it has sexually matured and is ready to reproduce. From that point it will live year around in the nesting location.
“They are amazing little animals because they come from an egg about the size of my fist and then after only 12 weeks they’ll reach the 10 to 12 pound range. So their growth rate is quite phenomenal,” Coffey said. “But at about 12 weeks of age they’re ready to fly.”
The front of the hacking tower had gates that could be lowered to allow the eagle to fly away. Corps of Engineers, TWRA and TTU officials worked together to attach transmitters on every eagle using superglue and dental floss, which allowed the eagles to be tracked for a short time at the lake after their release to monitor their safety. The eagles shed these feathers within a year after being released.
Eagles have fierce predatory instincts, powerful talons and sharp bite for tearing into their prey, characteristics that proved challenging for biologists that were involved with attaching the transmitter and wing markers.
Coffey said the team also applied a pat agile, which is a wing marker on each of them with a large number for spotting purposes and to help hunters with identifying them and protecting them.
“They don’t get their bald heads, the white feathers on their heads, until they’re about three to five years old. When they become sexually mature is when they get that full white head,” she said.
Massa said he always enjoyed watching when the gates were lowered to release the eagles because some birds were eager to leave while others took hours.
“It’s just like birds on a nest… it seems like the mother bird would have to coax some of them off and some of them would be ready to go right away. They each had their own personalities it seemed like,” Massa said. “The main thing was to have a good clear flyway and of course they monitored those birds with the tracking device until they left the area. Normally most of them would stay in the area anywhere from four or five days to a week and a half before they ventured and left, and most of them would go north.”
In 1987, two eagles were released. In 1988 six eagles were released. In 1989 11 eagles were released. In 1990 13 eagles were released. In 1991 12 eagles were released Today the American Bald Eagle nests at Dale Hollow Lake and surrounding waterways and can be seen flying overhead all year.
“I guess you would call it majestic… it is,” Nivens said. “You see the big white head up there and you’re mesmerized when you sit and watch a bald eagle.”
Other individuals involved in the Eagle Watch Restoration Project include Park Rangers Jeff Orten, Sherry Roberts and Ron Timberlake, and Joe Cathey, Nashville District Environmental Resources Branch chief. American Airlines transported the eaglets to Tennessee at no cost.
Dale Hollow Lake conducts annual Eagle Watch programs the third and fourth Saturday of January. Eagle enthusiasts are transported by open barge in search of wintering bald eagles. The eagle watch tours are free, but advance reservations are required. For more information go to the Nashville District’s website at http://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/Locations/Lakes/DaleHollowLake/SpecialEvents/eaglewatchreservationinfo.aspx.
(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at www.lrn.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps.)