Few stories of humans interacting with nature better capture the spirit of Earth Day — respect, conserve, help, do no harm — than the remarkable rescue and return of an eaglet trapped in its nest at the National Arboretum. The story got remarkably scant coverage by local media, a missed opportunity to salute some very dedicated professionals in the business of supporting nature. The entire 24-hour drama is condensed to about 11 minutes on a video on the website of the American Eagle Foundation.
The eagle’s nest at the National Arboretum is one of several around the country where a webcam keeps watch over the family during nesting season. It’s a fascinating view at any given moment (www.dceaglecam.org) While some purists may wonder about any human oversight or intervention, in fact, human intervention in the guise of the Endangered Species Act was originally necessary to bring eagles back from the brink of extinction when human influences — hunting, environmental poisons like DDT and other human interference — killed eagles in vast numbers and reduced the U.S. eagle population at one point to near extinction. The effort to restore bald eagles was so successful that eagles were taken off the Endangered Species List in 2007, but monitoring continues.
DC 4 (one day old photo above, with mom), the first eaglet hatched this year to Mr. President and The First Lady (the names of the parent eagles) seemed like the more adventurous of the pair that hatched over two days in late March. The two were already shedding their adorable baby down and getting ready to grow the adolescent feathers that would start them on the road to fledging in several weeks.
(photo credit: eaglets on screenshot of dceaglecam.org of the American Eagle Foundation)
Near disaster struck late on an afternoon last week when DC 4 managed to get its leg trapped in some branches while exploring a far part of the nest. No amount of pulling, prodding and nest re-arrangement by the parents seemed to help, and the online human viewers grew very concerned.
The webcam made it possible for the good folks at the US Fish and Wildlife Service to see the distressed eaglet and to work with the American Eagle Foundation, National Arboretum and other professionals to come up with a plan to help. In the dark of night, they sent a professional arborist to the rescue — the arborist climbed the tree, freed the eaglet and brought it down for an examination. Subsequently, we learned that this heroic tree climber is Matt Morrison, and he worked with a team of experts at USFWS, the Arboretum, the American Eagle Foundation, and his company aptly named Excel Tree Experts.
After a visit to a vet at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, DC 4 was declared healthy and able to return to the family nest. So, once again, the arborist scaled the heights, baby in tow in a bag. When he reached the nest, the other eaglet — DC 5 — opened its mouth wide in amazement and immediately all viewers could tell what a gentle man Matt Morrison is when he said to DC 5, “You’re all right…Hungry? I’m getting Mr. President and The First Lady up here in a minute.”
Just as the climber reached the nest all heck broke loose in a major thunderstorm. Undaunted, the tree guy with such amazing balance stood up and made sure his ropes all worked.
He then hauled up the small bag with DC 4 and coaxed the eaglet back into the nest, saying, “Come on, you can do it!” and at one point gently urging the bird, “Don’t be chicken!”
Then as DC 4 stood up, quite unexpectedly Matt leaned over and gave him a fatherly kiss on the head while telling his colleagues on the radio, “The eagle has landed!” As Matt prepared to make his descent, he looked back at DC 4 once more and wagged his finger (top photo on this blog) with the admonition, “Now, you stay away from the edge! Don’t make me come back here!” When the people on the ground said they couldn’t hear him, he replied, “I’m talking to the eagle!”
There’s a fairly large community of eagle enthusiasts who follow the webcam and participate in online discussions about the nest, and not surprisingly, there was considerable agita and anxiety about the likely impact of this adventure on the eagle family. No fear! Mr. P and TFL, as they are called, returned to the nest once they were sure the human had gone, and regular feedings of the hungry babies continued.
So, what does this mean for Earth Day? There’s a right and a wrong way for humans to work with nature and to be stewards of our fragile earth. It’s absolutely right to use our intelligence, research and common sense to help the natural world to thrive — while some people may reject the idea of any intervention, in fact, the intervention at the Arboretum probably means that the bird will grow to maturity, and, if healthy, spawn many future generations of eagles.
The wrong way to work with nature is to assume that all of the natural goods of the earth are here for human consumption, and that the natural world must serve human purposes, and especially economic purposes that amass wealth and pleasure for some while ignoring the dangers to others. Think of the massive consumption of fossil fuels in just the last century, the danger of climate change that now threatens so many species and the very balance of the seas and land masses. Despite the claims of some politicians, the scientific evidence is clear that human activity is impacting climate cycles and not for the better.
Why are eagles important? They are a bellwether of the health of our environment, and like many other birds, they contribute to cross-pollination and continuation of the balance of species.
Unfortunately, not all humans are as gentle and caring as the big man who climbed the tree to help the small bird. Some politicians think that any effort to protect species and the environment is just a lot of lefty nonsense, and the current administration has made its disdain for environmental protection very clear. From rolling back pollution safeguards to staffing the Environmental Protection Agency with people who do not believe in climate science, the new administration seems bent on undermining the years of thoughtful and progressive research and regulation that was just beginning to show progress in environmental restoration.
The restoration of bald eagles could be just temporary, as with so many other environmental markers. If we don’t care for the small things, we will soon be facing much larger environmental catastrophes.
In his landmark encyclical on the environment Laudato Si, Pope Francis clearly linked our care for the environment — one of the seven tenets of social justice — with care for human life. “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental….There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.”
A man with a big heart put himself at risk to rescue a small bird, and in that simple act two species found a moment of harmony and a glimpse into a future that can regenerate for ages to come. Let’s give thanks to Matt Morrison and all of the professionals who collaborated to ensure this success story. And then let’s join the scientists and ethicists marching literally and figuratively all over the world to insist that governments and industry truly take the future of this planet and all of God’s creation as central considerations in all of their policies and programs.
Environmental stewardship will not stop human progress or economic growth; environmental destruction will eventually destroy all.