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Leechburg elementary eagle-watchers make 'NBC Nightly News'

| Wednesday, April 2, 2014, 7:41 a.m.
Courtesy Pix Controller
The third Hays eaglet was expected to hatch Tuesday.

Those watching the Pittsburgh Hays bald eagle's nest in anticipation of the clutch's final hatch on Tuesday missed Leechburg Area elementary students on national television for the same thing.

Debbi Young's fifth-grade class at David Leech Elementary was showcased by NBC Nightly News on Tuesday for their study of the historic nest. The three-egg nesting is the second for the eagles, which last year became the first to successfully breed in the city in more than 150 years.

Young's class has been viewing the nest through an interactive smart board since December. In that time, they've witnessed the eagles lay eggs, fend off multiple predators and feed two eaglets. The third and final is expected to hatch any time now.

All of this has been made possible by a live webcam set up in December by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and PixController Inc, a Murrysville company that specializes in outdoor camera systems. Trib Total Media, parent company of the Tribune-Review, has been streaming the feed on its website since February.

On Thursday, Trib Total Media hosted a Q-and-A forum with the local Audubon Society, which sets out to connect people in western Pennsylvania to birds and nature through projects and programs.

Among the 450 or so visitors for the forum was Young's class. Their question was not only met with a prompt response from the Audubon Society, but earned them a spot on prime-time television.

Jim Bonner, the local Audubon Society director, said NBC contacted him Tuesday afternoon to source its feature on the resurgence of bald eagles in western Pennsylvania. He remembered the Leechburg Area students from the Trib's forum, he said, and put the news crew in contact with David Leech Elementary officials.

“That's what's so great about the webcam,” Bonner said. “It's a great way to address people through new platforms. It allows us to connect people and grow our message.”

The news crew on Tuesday was met by some students with disbelief.

“I thought it was an April Fool's joke,” said Gabriella Yerjevich, 11. “I think all the other kids were jealous. They didn't know why we got to be on the news.”

Young's class got to be on the news because the fifth-grade teacher's use of the eagle cam has resonated with her students. She's using the eagles as a learning tool for a unit on environmental study. The bald eagles' resurgence, she teaches her students, is a positive indicator that Pittsburgh's environment is clearing up after decades of industrialization.

Some students like McKenna Pierce, however, are more intrigued by the biological aspects of the study. The 20-minute daily glimpse into the eagles' lives, she said, has been an eye-opening experience.

“My favorite part was when they fought off the raccoon that attacked the nest,” said Pierce, 11. “I didn't know that happened. It was also cool when we saw the bird hatch on Friday.”

Young said the students had just finished their PSSA testing and were watching the eagle cam when the second eaglet hatched. It was “pandemonium,” she said, with all of the students screaming and gathered around the screen to witness the hatch.

Bill Powers, CEO of PixController, said elementary schools from Texas to New Jersey have been among the 1 million viewers that the company expects to hit sometime Wednesday. The company's goal, he said, is largely focused on educating classrooms at any level — an idea the Audubon Society can appreciate.

“That's what it's all about,” Bonner said. “We've been thrilled with how many people have been about the eagles. It's crossed all demographics, and the questions on Friday were great.”

Young's class asked the Audubon Society what the eagles would do with the third egg if it doesn't hatch.

The response was blunt: “It would be discarded.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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