National Geographic : 1992 Nov
REE SURGEON Wayne Norton goes outonalimbto retrieve an eagle egg from a 75-foot pine near Orlando, Florida (right). He wears a surgical mask and glove to protect the egg from contamination as it begins a remarkable journey. Flown by jet to Oklahoma, it will be hatched, and the chick will be raised by biologists as protective as any parent eagles before being taken to a release, or hacking, tower in Alabama, 500 miles from its original nest. At the tower the eagle will learn to fly and hunt before it begins its northern migration. If all goes well, it will return to the area of its release to rear its own young. "To be where no other humans are allowed is a power ful experience," says Norton, who has visited some 150 nests. "It reminds me I'm a small cog in a very big wheel. The word 'honored' isn't strong enough." Norton makes his climbs in December, as part of a team led by the George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center in Bar tlesville, Oklahoma. One of sev eral eagle recovery efforts in the country, the Sutton center has pioneered the technique of tak ing eagle eggs rather than chicks from the wild. The team knows that if it removes the entire clutch, usually two, the parent birds will lay another clutch, or "recycle." That doesn't mean the par ents welcome the intrusion. Although the birds rarely attack climbers, "I've had adult eagles dive to within ten feet of me," Norton says, "close enough to hear their beaks clicking." With the parents out of the nest, Norton quickly places the egg in a plastic-foam container and lowers it to the ground. Exposed to the sun, the egg would soon overheat, killing the embryo. Team members record the egg's location and load it into a portable incubator (bot tom left). Elapsed time: less than 15 minutes. Then they rush it to a more reliable incubator aboard an RV, which serves as base for two climbing groups. On the way to the team's apart ment, technician Traci Darnell cushions the cargo and checks a thermometer for any variation from 99.25°F (bottom right). Every three hours she will help rotate the eggs, as eagle parents do, to prevent the embryos from sticking to the shells. Although it has been illegal to harm or possess bald eagles since 1940, the birds nearly dis appeared from the contiguous United States, where they once numbered perhaps 50,000. They fell to shootings and lost habitat but mostly to the pesticide DDT, which caused them to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke before they could hatch. By the time the U. S. restricted DDT use in 1972, only about 800 breeding pairs could be found. Protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the bald eagle has made a steady recov ery. While the battle is not yet won, breeding pairs have in creased to at least 3,000, and the number of hatchlings per nest is up. More than a thousand eagles have been released to the wild, nearly a third of them-275 to be exact-raised in captivity by the Sutton project.