Nature v nuture: Marco eaglets at Conservancy after ejection from nest
It’s been a tough winter for eagles on Marco Island.
Paleo, the male half of the nesting pair, was electrocuted after flying into a power line at the end of February. A second eagle was found dead at the Island Country Club, with the reason for his demise uncertain.
Paleo and Calusa had been fledging two eaglets, after successfully hatching them out. But with Paleo gone, another eagle, described as a “rogue adult male” by Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation (MESF) communications director Linda Turner, showed up at the nest, and unceremoniously ejected the hatchlings from the nest.
“It had been tough for Calusa” after losing her mate, said Turner. “She had to do all the hunting” to provide for the chicks. The new male’s quick readiness to eliminate any offspring not bearing his genes provides an object lesson in the ruthlessness of nature in the raw.
“If these two eagles start courting, then mating, they could possibly have more babies this season,” said Turner, adding the more likely possibility is Calusa will return next season with a mate. “Once she stays on the nest, we know it’s happening.” The incubation period for eagles is 35 days, said Turner.
The baby eagles, unable to fly and nowhere ready to face life on their own, were taken to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples. There, they are receiving the best possible care by experienced bird rehabilitation staff, with the intent to set them free when they are ready.
After initially being kept inside, the eaglets have been moved outside to a “large flight enclosure,” said Joanna Fitzgerald, director of the von Arx hospital.
“They’re sticking close together,” just as they would have in their nest, she said, although “there was a little aggression between them,” perhaps not unusual for siblings, particularly under stressful conditions. The von Arx facility is providing the best “hospital food” for the chicks, consisting of “mostly larger rodents” including rats and “a variety of fish,” with finger mullet a featured item.
Fitzgerald guesstimated it would be “close to a month” before the eaglets were ready for release.
“They aren’t flapping around yet. First they become flappers, then they start branching” – moving out onto tree limbs and exercising their wings. After they begin to fly in the current 40-ft. flight enclosure, the eaglets will be moved to a 100-ft. enclosure for advanced flight training.
“It’s T-shaped, specifically built for eagle rehabilitation,” she said. “The shape means they have to angle their flight,” teaching them to turn. “They are big babies,” she said, nearly the size of adult eagles, but without the experience that will turn them into skilled hunters and predators.
“They have these amazing talons and beak, but they just don’t know how to use them.” Not having role models to emulate typically makes the fledging process take longer.
Fitzgerald said it was not possible to visit and photograph the eaglets, as the Conservancy is working hard to keep them as wild as possible.
“It’s important they don’t habituate to humans at all,” she said; their only human contact comes when their food is delivered to them. “You don’t want them stressed. We tend to keep wild animals wild.”
Carl Way, MESF president, said his group has secured a lease-purchase agreement from the District School Board of Collier County agree to sell the 11.6-acre property on northern Marco Island known as Tract K, but is still in the process of raising funds to complete the transaction.
“We have enough money to do what we need to do. I’m not willing to share exact numbers right now,” he said. The group now calls the area the Marco Island Nature Preserve and Bird Sanctuary, and has plans to add walking paths, benches, a butterfly garden, and away from the nest, a small building for education programs, said Turner.
She added that MESF has a web camera ready to go at the nest site, which would have been in place and operating last fall except for Hurricane Irma. Now, she said, it will be installed once eagle nesting season ends in May, and will be ready for the star performers to make their return in the fall.
To support the work of the Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, or for more information, call 239-269-1754, or go online to www.marcoeaglesanctuaryfoundation.org.