Last month, the oldest known wild bald eagle in the United States died, after being struck by a car in Henrietta, New York, reports Elizabeth Deatrick for the Audubon Society. With a freshly killed rabbit nearby, he was likely feeding on carrion when the vehicle struck.
Banded 629-03142 by biologists, the old-timer hatched in 1977 at Puposky Lake near Bemidji Minnesota, writes Doug Smith for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. At the time, the use of the insecticide DDT (banned in 1972) had decimated bald eagle populations in many states. When 03142 was just a few weeks old, he and three other eaglets were captured and relocated to New York’s Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.
At the time, only one breeding pair of wild bald eagles remained. They lived in a nest near Hemlock Lake, "and they kept accidentally smashing every egg they laid,” writes Deatrick. So, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) started a program that involved importing eaglets from other states. The conservationists raised the hatchlings through a process called hacking—hiding from the birds behind a blind while raising them in nests on stilts. The goal was to get them to imprint on their local environment, while retaining a fear of humans.
It worked. After fledging, the bald eaglets stuck to the local environs, writes Deatrick:
A few years later, the male half of New York’s last original breeding pair died, and 03142 took his place in the old nest at Hemlock Lake. Over next few decades, 03142 fathered many young eaglets, doing his part to push his species out of danger.
The DEC program ended in 1989, and conservationists stopped keeping close tabs on him and the other birds. Retired DEC wildlife biologist Peter Nye said in a statement:
When we banded 03142 on August 5, 1977 and had no idea how very special and significant this young bald eagle would become to our nascent bald eagle restoration program. Based on his recent recovery near this site, we have to assume he has been the resident male, breeding here for the past 34 years. That's quite a stretch, and likely a record in itself.
Most bald eagles live around 20 years, but 03142 died at the ripe old age of 38.