Every year New Yorkers seem to become communally enchanted by a winged creature, typically one that is roosting in Central Park. Barry the Barred Owl (RIP). Mandarin Patinkin the Hot Duck (RIP?). And now Rover the Bald Eagle. But astute birders may have noticed that there have been more and more bald eagles around lately — and not just alongside that other national treasure John Cena.
In New York City, many of these sightings are filtered through the Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter account run by David Barrett. He told WNYC/Gothamist that while seeing high-flying bald eagles is not that rare over areas like the Hudson River, since January 11th, New Yorkers have been treated every day to "a low-flying or perching bald eagle in Central Park," and this, he said, "is most unusual!"
Two bald eagles appear to be frequenting that area, according to Barrett: a juvenile and an adult known as Rover.
In one rapturous moment this week, Rover was seen killing a herring gull on the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, and then returning for leftovers the next day.
In 2018, Rover was given a green metal tag with the code "R7" on it, and Barrett explained that at this time he got his nickname from birders in Brooklyn, his previous chosen borough.
Paul Sweet, of the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, told WNYC/Gothamist that for years he would see Rover a fair amount in Brooklyn. "He used to hang around Green-Wood Cemetery, the Bush Terminal, Prospect Park—but you know, they can fly a long way, so not a big deal for him to come to Manhattan."
Sweet said Rover's move was likely due to the number of ducks and gulls and other prey at the Central Park Reservoir. But he said the real bald eagle hotspot is just outside of town in Croton-on-Hudson.
"Somebody reported 17 bald eagles there today [Thursday]. So there are a bunch up there at Croton. If you wanted to see a lot of eagles, you go up to Croton... you can take the train there and just walk to the park."
If you just want to see Rover, however, you'll do best in Central Park. How will you know it's him?
"If you see a high flyover, it could be any bald eagle," Barrett said. "If you see an eagle flying low or perching, the odds are high now that it is Rover if it is an adult."
During a recent sighting on Thursday, Rover was perched on the reservoir's ice just before noon -- and attempting to kill a wood duck (which survived, this time).
But why are so many of these majestic raptors showing up all over the state now? Chris Lajewski, center director at the Montezuma Audubon Center in New York, told WNYC/Gothamist that the bald eagle is a true conservation success story.
"Let's go back 50 years, to the mid-1970s, there was only one bald eagle nest in the whole state of New York," he said. "And now we're over 400 nests across the state of New York. So a huge increase in the number of bald eagles."
In addition to habitat conservation efforts and new and updated conservation laws, this journey to bring bald eagles back from being in danger of extinction (which was the case in the 1960s) began with a hacking program that kicked off in 1976.
"Hacking refers to the process where you take wild animals from one population and relocate them to a new area to get that population started in a new location. And we did this right here in New York state, in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex." Starting in 1976 and through 1980, there were 23 one-month-old bald eagle chicks brought to the upstate complex from the Midwest and Maryland. It was the first time this had ever been tried anywhere in this country, Lajewski said.
"We hand-fed these bald eagle chicks using an adult bald eagle hand puppet. We didn't want the chicks to lose their fear of humans." At around four-months-old, their instincts kicked in, and they'd fly and hunt through the wetlands, he said.
The hacking program was brought to other parts of the state, and by the end of the 1980s, there were 10 bald eagle nests around New York. Today, there are over 400 — "It's something that we are certainly proud of at the National Audubon Society," Lajewski said, "I think all New Yorkers can be proud of."
In the winter, the state's bald eagle population rises even more. Bald eagles are migratory birds, but New York's inhabitants tend to stay put. Bald eagles from much colder areas, however, come down for the season, Lajewski said. "Here in New York, we see an influx in bald eagles during the winter season because all the eagles from Canada and northern parts of New York and New England states come down here and spend the winter in our relatively mild and tranquil" climate.