April 5, 2013
By Rachael Grace
The three rivers of Pittsburgh are now home to six bald eagles, with several babies on the way. This would be unheard of some 40 years ago when the bald eagle population in Western Pennsylvania—and around the country—was decimated due to habitat destruction, illegal shooting, and the consequences of DDT.
“When you’re young you think you’ll never see eagles except in Alaska or in the mountains, and now we have them here on all three rivers. So I take it as a sign that we’ve taken better care of the rivers,” said David Carlyle, a minister who visited one nesting site in Harmar Township last week.
The year 1972 marked an important milestone for these once federally endangered birds. DDT was banned and the Clean Water Act was passed. The waters once again started to become a healthy cafeteria for fish-eating birds, and their eggs became strong enough to withstand incubation. Now more than 200 bald eagle nesting locations are known in Pennsylvania.
Bald eagles are an indicator species, said Patricia O'Neill, director of education at The National Aviary. "Eagles are very sensitive to changes in their environment. They need very healthy forest habitat. They need very healthy waters in which to fish and find food," she said. So the birds' return can be seen as one positive sign of the state of our ecosystem.
The birds have established their new homes in surprisingly industrial spaces—two sites are near well-trafficked roads in Hays and Harmar. Excited bird watchers are making pilgrimages to these areas in the hopes of seeing the birds soaring through the skies.
"If anyone's interested in coming down and seeing the birds, observe them from a distance but leave them be in their natural place," said Michael Thompson, manager of the Keystone Iron & Metal scrap yard in Hays, who first spotted the birds there this January and now enjoys watching them regularly.
Another watcher, Barry Jeffries, was biking along the Monongahela River in Hays when he saw his first bald eagle. "Pretty cool," he said. "Made my day."