December 2017

Vol. 45, No. 6

Field Notes: Massachusetts’ Oldest Bald Eagle Died Too Young

Thomas W. French

Female chick (W02 in the foreground), and her male sibling (W03 in the background) on the day they were banded. Photograph by Bill Byrne.

This past spring, on March 30, 2017, a passing motorist found an injured adult Bald Eagle lying near a dead opossum on Island Road inside the Hockanum Oxbow, Connecticut River, near the Oxbow Marina in Northampton, Massachusetts. Although the eagle was still alive and was taken to a veterinarian, her injuries were severe and she did not survive. She was a known bird, banded with an aluminum nine-digit leg band issued by the Bird Banding Laboratory on her right leg and a field-readable color band—W02 gold with black figures—on her left. W02 was one of the pair of eagles that originally nested at the oxbow on the west side of the Connecticut River, then moved to a location on the east side, and later moved back to the west side in the oxbow.

It turns out that W02 was an important bird in the history of Bald Eagle restoration in Massachusetts. The first wild-born eagles in Massachusetts in modern times were three chicks hatched in two different nests at Quabbin Reservoir in 1989. The banding of the single chick, W01, in a nest in a large white pine in Quabbin Park was the center of a major media event. The same day, two additional chicks, W02 and her sibling W03, were banded with no fanfare in a nest in a red oak tree on Russ Mountain, an island off the east shore of the Prescott Peninsula. The father of these two chicks was seven-year-old Ross, one of the first two eagles raised on the hack tower at the mouth of Egypt Brook on the east side of the Prescott Peninsula in 1982. Both of these first two birds had been taken from wild nests in Michigan. The mother of W02 was a four-year-old bird taken from a wild nest on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

In 1992, as a three-year-old, W02 found a mate and the pair constructed their first nest on top of an old Red-tailed Hawk nest in a large cottonwood tree near where the Mill River enters the oxbow. The following year she laid her first eggs and fledged two chicks, W29 and W30. In a stroke of coincidence, one of W02’s first two chicks, W29, was also killed on a road this spring. She was found dead at the intersection of Main Street and James Street in Holyoke on March 4, 2017. At the age of 24, she was our second-oldest documented eagle, the daughter of W02 from our first cohort of wild-born chicks, and the granddaughter of Ross who was a member of the first cohort of founding chicks in our restoration program.

During the 24 years of W02’s reproductive life, she occupied five different nests and successfully fledged 19 chicks during 13 successful seasons, which amounts to 1.5 chicks per successful year. However, her nest failed in 11 years, reducing her overall productivity to 0.8 fledged chicks per year. She failed to raise chicks 45.8 % of the time. In the 11 failed years, the nest collapsed in three years (twice with a chick and once with eggs), she failed to hatch the eggs in four years (probably due to cold, rainy weather), she lost chicks in three years, and in one year the circumstances of failure are unknown. After she was killed, her twenty-fifth clutch of eggs was left unattended and failed to hatch. This high rate of failure is probably not unusual.

None of the original 41 eagles brought to Quabbin Reservoir as founders of our modern population are known to still be alive, so at 28 years old, W02 is presumed to be our longest-lived Bald Eagle so far. Having been struck by a vehicle, her death was premature, so the question is, how long could she have lived? The oldest wild Bald Eagle on record was 38. This bird died on June 2, 2015, in Henrietta, Monroe County, New York, surpassing the previous longevity record by five years. She had hatched in a wild Minnesota nest and was brought to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in New York to be raised on a hack tower in the second year of New York’s extensive Bald Eagle restoration program. But she too was killed on a highway by a vehicle, so the question of how old a wild Bald Eagle can live remains unanswered.

For more information on the recovery of the Bald Eagle in Massachusetts, see:

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