Befriending America's big bird

HUNDREDS of people huddled against the predawn chill on a dirt road in southern Oregon recently, waiting for a shy celebrity to emerge from the back of a pickup truck. A golden eagle, nicknamed Big Girl by her rescuers, was scheduled for release as part of the ninth annual Bald Eagle Conference. When the sun came out, she flapped off to a nearby field to get her bearings. Later, when the crowd had slipped away to the conference in nearby Klamath Falls, she flew off to find her mate.

For many who saw her that morning, Big Girl's recovery from a crippling injury and return to the wild symbolized a renewed hope for the future of eagles and other raptors, or birds of prey, in the Western states.

In every state but Alaska, where the species abounds, and Hawaii, which never had any, bald eagles are designated by federal officials as endangered or threatened. With perhaps as few as 13,000 bald eagles living in the Lower 48 states, most Americans will never see their national symbol on the wing. In the early 1970s, a major effort began to help the bald eagle recover to the point of being declassified as threatened or endangered. Nowhere has this program been more successful than in the Pacific states. The eagle conference serves as a rallying point for recovery efforts nationwide.

Every year on Presidents' Day weekend, hundreds of scientists, conservationists, and birders converge on Klamath Falls (pop., 17,400) for a three-day celebration of the bald eagle. To date, biologists know relatively little about the everyday behavior of this bird, but information is steadily accumulating through field observation and experimentation. The Oregon conference provides a forum for scientists to share their findings with colleagues and the general public and for sponsoring organizations to raise funds and recruit volunteers.

This year the news from the experts was generally optimistic. Oregon State University biologist Bob Anthony said, ``There is a steady increase in knowledge about the [bald eagle] and some indication of an increase in the number of breeding pairs in Oregon.'' With 150 breeding pairs, Oregon ranks second only to Washington among Western states in bald eagle population. Mr. Anthony also expressed hope that in the 1990s there will be enough bald eagles to declassify them as a threatened species in Oregon.

Kevin McGarigal, also of OSU, reported progress in determining what kinds of human activity in bald eagle foraging areas may unintentionally disrupt its spatial use patterns. Such findings, he said, could lead to management practices designed to protect nesting pairs.

Experts also discussed the California condor and golden eagle.

The Oregon Eagle Foundation, lead sponsor of the conference, carries out a wide range of activities on behalf of its namesake. To advance the understanding of the bald eagle life cycle and behavior, the group recruits, trains, and coordinates a network of regional reporters, volunteers who make regular observations of bald eagle activity throughout the state. Their data become part of a computer data base that enables biologists to locate previously unknown nesting sites and public land managers to plan for eagle protection. Without this outpouring of private initiative and involvement, says a government biologist, ``We couldn't get the job done.''

In terms of size the conference has almost become too successful. Word-of-mouth recommendations have overridden the site's remoteness, winter chill, and lack of big-city amenities to such an extent that sponsors had to put a cap on registration this year. Nevertheless, conference activities, which include a wildlife film festival, classroom and field workshops, and art and photography contests have maintained a homey ambiance, with casual dress and first names the rule.

According to conference coordinator Charlotte Opp, the turnover rate of participants is 85 percent each year. She says this reflects an increasingly wider audience, many of whom will become active in the eagle recovery effort. Ray Nolan, a physician and Audubon Society leader from North Bend, Ore., says, ``The bald eagle needs all the friends it can get, and this is a great way to get them working together.'' While noting that factors such as loss of habitat and illegal hunting continue to threaten the bald eagle, he concludes, ``This conference gives us hope for the bald eagle's future.''

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