Visitors to New York’s Central Park Reservoir experience a drama full of springs. His star performer, exciting park visitors and terrorizing seagulls is Rover, a bald eagle.
The city’s birdwatchers have been following Rover for two years, with some pointing to his ongoing story as demonstrating the conservation benefits of attaching aluminum ties to the legs of endangered bird species when they are young. Rover’s arrival in the five boroughs also adds to the mounting evidence of a return to urban areas by birds of prey. If Rover can make a home in and around Central Park, perhaps even more eagles will fill the city’s skies in the coming years.
Rover’s story begins in New Haven, Conn. In 2016, the city’s birdwatchers were surprised to see a pair of bald eagles building a nest at a busy intersection. The male wore a band around his leg that read ‘P2’, while the female had no band. Birders christened the pair Walter and Rachel — W and R after the West River, which flows through the city, said Martin Torresquintero, the outdoor adventure coordinator for the city’s government.
Walter and Rachel were unable to raise a boy that year and then moved to a nearby cemetery. They succeeded the following year, and again in 2018 when they laid three eggs.
Biologists at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection monitored the nest until the eggs hatched. On May 11, 2018, Brian Hess, a state wildlife biologist, drove an aerial platform from the city of New Haven to the nest and removed the chicks. He weighed and measured them, placed a metal ring on each of their legs and returned them. One ring contained a long number assigned by the United States Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory, while the other two contained large characters visible through telescopes or zooms. The female sibling’s tape read P7, while one male read R7 and the other S7.
Two years later, a young bald eagle began to watch in the tall pines of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. “I couldn’t believe there was a bald eagle hanging out at Green-Wood Cemetery in central Brooklyn,” said Angela Panetta, a birdwatcher in the neighborhood who said the eagle piqued her interest in birdwatching.
Birders in Green-Wood noticed a ring around his left leg, R over 7, earning him the nickname Rover, and they’ve been following him ever since.
Then, just a few weeks ago, a striped bald eagle dramatically appeared in Central Park, perched low above the reservoir and yanking a seagull from the sky in front of onlookers.
Mr Hess had seen a video of bald eagle hunting in Central Park. “I thought, wow, that’s the coolest thing,” he said. Shortly afterwards, he was contacted with a report that a bald eagle with the black belt indicating R7 had hanged in New York City. He recognized the combination right away – it was one of the siblings he had banded together in 2018.
Rover represents part of an ongoing trend of birds of prey moving to urban areas. Birds of prey populations plummeted in the first half of the 20th century due to widespread hunting and the use of the insecticide DDT. These chemicals traveled through the food web and accumulated in predators such as bald eagles, making the shell of their eggs too thin to support the weight of the parent, said Jen Cruz, a population ecologist at Boise State University.
Bans on DDT, as well as laws prohibiting harming or disturbing bald eagles, have led to the species’ recovery. The population of bald eagles has quadrupled since 2009, and these large white-headed raptors are now a regular sight, even in New York City; Bald eagles, for example, breed on Staten Island. The birds are adaptable and can feed on fish, roadkill, other birds and more – even in Central Park.
“I’ve been birding Central Park for at least five years now,” says Ursula Mitra of Manhattan. “And frankly, I’ve never seen an eagle hunting on the reservoir, except in the past four or five weeks.”
Birds of prey are still threatened in New York City. Last year, Barry, Central Park’s famous barred owl, died after being hit by a maintenance vehicle. An autopsy revealed that she had eaten poisoned prey.
Rover’s family has also endured drama. No new sightings of P7 have been reported, and S7 was killed by a truck in West Virginia in September 2018. Rover’s mother, Rachel, was hit by a truck on I-95 in 2020 and survived. But during her rehab, Walter found a new partner who fought Rachel when she tried to get back with him, Mr. Torresquintero said.
Mr Hess is optimistic about Rover’s future. Bald eagles start breeding around the age of 5 years and Rover is 4 years. He may find a mate and choose to breed in New York City as well.
“Obviously this bird has figured out how to catch gulls, and probably ducks too,” Mr. Hess said. “They are really smart and adaptable birds that have figured out how to survive in many different places.”