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Eaglets prepare to take wing in Pittsburgh, Harmar

| Monday, June 2, 2014, 7:14 a.m.
Courtesy Dana Nesiti
One of the Pittsburgh eaglets tests its wings. The three chicks in the nest are expected to make their first flights soon.
Courtesy Brian D. Shema
The male Harmar bald eagle stands watch over the nest high above the Route 28 expressway. The Harmar eagles have one young eagle, which may be getting ready to make its first flight.

There's a whole lotta flapping going on.

The three eaglets in the bald eagle nest in Pittsburgh's Hays neighborhood and the one eaglet in Harmar will spread their wings to leave the nests within the next month or so.

Those four youngsters are the biggest crop of the once-endangered bald eagles born and raised in the Pittsburgh area in more than 150 years.

Plus, there might be more: A pair of eagles that have been nesting for four years on private property in Crescent, near Beaver County, were last reported to be brooding eggs, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“From a conservation point, four offspring is something we should be happy about,” said Brian Shema, director of conservation for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

“This is a first in our lifetime,” he said.

The birds are back because of cleaner rivers teeming with the bird's favorite food — fish — and a recovery from near extinction because of DDT and other factors.

Thirty years ago, when there were only three known nests left in the state, the game commission started to re-introduce the birds.

The efforts paid off as the bald eagle population has increased steadily and, in recent years, has topped more than 200 nesting pairs.

But not in the city limits of Pittsburgh.

That was until last year when the Hays couple successfully raised one young bird.

The Harmar nest produced young for the first time this year.

And nest activity at both sites is ramping up.

The eaglets have grown quickly and healthy from white fuzz balls to dark, vulture-looking birds — but with the telltale large eagle beak.

They will don brown and white plumage for four to five years until their signature snowy head and tail feathers grow in.

The Pittsburgh birds can be seen on a webcam installed by PixController and the game commission romping, exercising their wings with increasing frequency, building up their muscles for flight, according to Dan Brauning, wildlife diversity division chief for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

For added drama, the adolescent birds will fly-hop, catching some air for short bursts of flight, sometimes teetering on the edge of the nest.

The parents will do their part to encourage the young to fly by withholding meals and teasing them with food, according to Shema. The parents will also call to the young from a distance, he added.

When the juvenile eagles leave the nest, their parents will continue to feed them for four to six weeks, Shema said.

But nest departures can be challenging for the young eaglets that sometimes get grounded.

In a U.S. Fish and Wildlife study of eaglets outfitted with radio transmitters, most young eagles ended up on the ground at some point after fledging, according to Brian Millsap, national raptor coordinator for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

“But those scramble up small trees and get airborne again on their own in most cases,” he said. “This is pretty normal.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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