Winter is home improvement season in the bald eagle world. In Allegheny County, five nests are bustling with activity and one eagle couple are, well, companions without commitment.
The eagles’ return to the Pittsburgh area this century proved that the Smoky City is cleaning up its act, and in 2023 their story continues. Three experienced eagle pairs have settled into a now-familiar nest renovation and mating routine, two young couples are still learning the lessons of parenthood and one lovelorn two-time widower continues his struggle to find a lifelong mate and raise a family.
Bald eagles had mostly abandoned the region in the first half of the 20th century. In 1980 there were just a few known nests in Pennsylvania. Nationwide, the species was on the brink of collapse.
As federal pollution regulations and habitat reform slowed the eagles’ population collapse, wildlife agencies nationwide initiated restoration programs.
Pennsylvania Game Commission staff imported eaglets from Canada, wore eagle-face hand puppets to feed and fledge them and delivered the immature birds to locations throughout the state. In 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed bald eagles from the national list of endangered and threatened species.
In 2010, a landowner in Crescent noticed a giant mass of sticks high in a white ash tree. The nest was soon confirmed to be the handiwork of bald eagles. A short glide as the eagle flies to the Ohio River, the nest was the county’s first since the eagle’s revival. During the next decade, more woven-stick masses as wide as 5 feet across and weighing 1,000 pounds were spotted.
Views into the nest bowls were not possible until 2014, when the Murrysville-based PixCams, with state Game Commission approval, provided a nest site in the Hays neighborhood in Pittsburgh with one of the first free-to-view live-streaming wildlife cameras.
Suddenly, the birds were stars, generating 3.5 million page views in the camera’s first six months. Eagle lovers worldwide watched in real time as eggs were laid, chicks pushed through their shells and cute balls of feathers grew into fledglings that nervously leaped off the tree in their attempts to fly high above the Monongahela River.
The same year, Pennsylvania’s bald eagle population achieved predetermined conservation benchmarks, warranting release from endangered and threatened status. They were upgraded to protected, the same oversight given to most self-sustaining wildlife. In most cases, a federal law prohibits killing bald and golden eagles or taking their parts, feathers, nests or eggs.
“There are hundreds of active eagle nests across the state now,” said Seth Mesoras, the information and education supervisor for the Game Commission’s southwest region. “When they were still vulnerable, we were going out weekly to check on what stages they were in. Now that they are thriving, we can focus on increasing the population of the species, not on individual nests.”
Once a curiosity, Allegheny County’s bald eagles have become familiar. Black and brown as adolescents, they develop their distinctive white heads and tails upon reaching sexual maturity at about 5 years old. Females are larger than males and can weigh up to 14 pounds. Nest building is a part of courtship, and like most eagles at Pennsylvania’s latitude, their first eggs are usually laid in February.