For nine years now, the Draper Museum in Cody has been studying golden eagles and what they mean for the dwindling sagebrush ecosystem where they live. That study will end next year so Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards joined researchers on a trip to band eaglets and find out what all this research is revealing about this iconic species.
It’s a chilly morning in May in the middle of an energy field south of Cody. A group of us watch as rock climber Nick Ciaravella rappel off a sandstone cliff to a nest made of huge branches below. Draper Museum Curator and renowned raptor biologist Charles Preston gesture us over to take a look.
“Right here, just be real quiet but you can kind of look over,” Preston says. “You can just barely see one of the chicks. You can see a rabbit that’s in there.”
Two fluffy white birds look out. The eaglets don’t make a peep as Ciaravella puts falconer hoods on the nestlings to calm them.
“These were on the younger side so they were pretty tame for the most part,” says Ciaravella. “But lots of times they’ll raise their wings at you, open their mouths. Sometimes they even hiss at you a little bit like a cat would.
Ciaravella places one nestling in a canvas bag and Preston hoists the bird up on a rope. Preston weighs the bird in the bag then carefully lifts it out.
“So here you can see the bird,” says Preston. “But we’re going to take control of those feet as soon as we can. They can do a lot of damage with these talons. There we go. There’s a beautiful bird. A lot of down. This bird’s just four weeks old.”
Preston is the author of the 2004 book Golden Eagles: Sovereigns of the Skies. He says these birds hold a special place in our hearts, appearing on the flags of hundreds of nations.
“I’ve never been with anyone who’s seen especially their first eagle that doesn’t utter something like Wow! They embody power and strength and whatever that elusive thing we call freedom is.”
But they embody even more to the fragile ecosystem, where they serve as an apex predator. With its seven-foot wingspans, incredible eyesight and sharp talons, “It’s at the top of the food chain,” says Preston. “And as an adult, there’s not another predator above it that will prey on it.”
“Nobody will eat an eagle?” I ask.
“That’s right,” Preston says with a laugh. “So it’s like wolves, even great horned owls can be considered an apex predator.”
Preston says such predators help balance the entire ecosystem community below them. Out here, that means all the way down the food chain to the rabbits and the sage brush.
“When cottontail populations crash or go low, the eagle reproduction really drops as well. And vice versa. When the rabbits come back the eagles really reproduce much more effectively.”
In many areas of the American West, the sage brush where those cottontails thrive is filling in with invasive cheatgrass that grows fast but burns even faster.
“So you start burning cheat grass. Guess what replaces it? More cheat grass. And so it replaces native sagebrush, native grasses. Changes the environment drastically,” Preston says. “I mean, just amazing. Which changes prey for golden eagles.”
It’s also urban sprawl, wind farms and energy fields like this one that are disturbing the balance that golden eagles now reign over. Preston says, sure, right now, their populations are relatively stable but, he says, “We’re finding a few nest sites and nest territories that have been abandoned over years as people move into an area, as there’s more and more activity.”
Some of the nest sites Preston studies even have prehistoric thunderbird rock art near them. He says that could mean eagles have occupied these same nests for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Preston says wildlife agencies should learn from the success of the greater sage grouse and start protecting golden eagles and their sagebrush habitat now, not later. That’s why he’s working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the energy industry to come up with a plan of action.
“We did crisis management with peregrine falcons, we did it with bald eagles, we’ve done it with wolves. But if we can avoid the crisis management and instead manage to avoid crisis, I think that’s pretty exciting and it’s the way to go in the 21st century.”
It’s time to return the eaglets to their nest. Preston lowers the second one down to climber Ciavella who’s been installing a remote camera to learn what prey they’re eating in this energy field.
“Are there any prey remains?” Preston hollers down.
“We got a bag full,” answers Ciaravella. “It looks like rabbits.”
Preston says while this initial phase of the study is wrapping up, he plans to make sure the data collection continues well into the future.
“Nick’s taking off the hood now and will place them right back in the nest where they’ll feel comfortable and stay for a while,” says Preston.
But the question is, will golden eagles stay put in these increasingly disturbed landscapes?