Story first appeared in:
FORT COLLINS — When an aging cottonwood hosting an active eagle nest at Barr Lake State Park blew over and sank into the depths, raptor fans were sad and families sent hand-drawn sympathy cards to the park office.
But state biologists stuck to their carefully considered response: “Better luck next time.”
Near Longmont a few years ago, a mama eagle was electrocuted by a power line, one of the hatchlings fell out of the nest, and then a rattlesnake came along and punctured the fallen eaglet’s talon. Dropped at a raptor rescue for intensive care, the baby bird made it and was released, healed talon and all.
And when fans of a Stearns Lake nest worried the leaning tree would fall over onto Boulder County Open Space, they offered to pay to prop up the branches. The county’s reaction? “That’s not what we do.”
As raptors from eagles to ospreys to great horned owls make a strong comeback in spite of relentless urban growth on the Front Range, wildlife biologists acknowledge that a live-cam-loving public gets confused.
When do we intervene to save wild animals, and when is nature the better judge?
Do we keep building artificial nests? Shore up ancient cottonwoods? Close more trails in nesting season? Pick up every fallen chick? Spend a week dunking eagles in warm baths to loosen cement?
And how to teach webcam watchers that a remote nest show is not meant to play like “Daddy Day Care,” but “Survivor”?
“The first thing we do is try to talk people down off the ledge, because they’re emotionally involved. They want to help,” said Mike Tincher, rehabilitation coordinator at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in Fort Collins. “It’s up to us to articulate, and take the emotion out of it the best we can.”
Yet Tincher has found himself chasing an ailing golden eagle up and down a rain-soaked slag pile at a cement plant, the bird’s wings increasingly coated in concrete and Tincher increasingly exhausted. He notes a distinction between human-caused animal disasters, like a cement pile in a raptor breeding ground, and natural causes like windstorms or drought. But he agrees the lines can be invisible to many.
Colorado State University veterinarian Miranda Sadar was once caught up in a Virginia debate over an eagle nest on a popular web cam, when the mama died and Daddy Bird had three starving eaglets to manage. A web of wildlife agencies considered the full range of possible reactions, from doing nothing to dangling fish popsicles over the nest that would drop morsels at regular intervals of melting. (They ended up taking the eaglets to a rehab center — but only after sorting the risk that the babies would see humans coming, jump in a panic, and injure themselves.)
Official reactions are often complicated by contact with citizens whose enthusiasm for wildlife can be undermined by inconvenient facts.
In her experience, Sadar said, an extremely common call to biologists and rescue centers goes like this:
We know this is a baby bald eagle.
Can you send a picture?
“They send a picture. And it’s a pigeon.”
You can build the nest, but you can’t make them stay
In the 1970s, after the pesticide DDT ravaged U.S. bird populations by weakening eggshells, states like Colorado hoped to rebuild to 10 nesting pairs of bald eagles statewide.
Now, there are more than a dozen active nests in Boulder County alone, wildlife biologists say. Though counts are imprecise and in flux, there are about 300 viable bald eagle nests across Colorado these days, said Michelle Seubert, manager of the popular bird sanctuary Barr Lake State Park.
Bird observation and conservation groups have speculated for years that burgeoning Front Range suburbs encroaching on wetlands and old cottonwood stands would renew threats to bald eagles and other raptors. But Front Range wildlife biologists say experience shows that with careful trail closures to protect wetland or cliff nesting areas, many raptors seem to thrive while living close to respectful humans.
Bald eagles hang out regularly in spaces as busy as Denver’s City and Washington parks, or Memorial Park in Colorado Springs. One wildlife biologist didn’t want her name attached to the observation that eagles in their frequency and eating habits may be more like seagulls than majestic national icons. But you get the idea.
Seubert and many of her regular walkers are disappointed eaglets will be missing from Barr Lake for the first time since the 1980s. But Seubert pecks through some recent history to explain why one tree falling is not catastrophic.
“Since 1986, we’ve had 61 eaglets fledge from Barr Lake,” she said. The park does build artificial nesting platforms in trees safer than the dead or flirting-with-disaster cottonwoods eagles often prefer. But pairs ready to nest don’t always choose the prefabs.
Last year at Barr Lake, a tree with a human-made nest basket fell over. Park workers put it back up in a more viable tree. The local nesting pair ignored it and built in a precarious dead cottonwood. Protective park staff and trail regulars were certain this year’s nest had eggs before an early April windstorm toppled the cottonwood into six feet of water, too deep for any evidence to surface.
That’s when biologists urge birders to keep calm and binocular on.
Even on the built-up Front Range, Seubert said, “nature has a way of taking care of its own. And so just to know that there are plenty of nests, and they’ll rebuild and come back.”
After the blowover and egg disaster, one sympathy card included a sticker of Snoopy hugging Charlie Brown.
“There’s some people that commented on Facebook, ‘Well, they need to take all the dead trees out.’ But for the most part, people are just sad,” Seubert said.
Fake nests ok, but no crutches for a tree
Some longtime bird observers stay at sad, while others fly beyond, deep into mad. And few even enlist lawyers.
Front Range Nesting Bald Eagle Studies is an amateur group that puts in serious time observing and defending local birds from perceived threats. At Boulder County’s Stearns Lake, in the Carolyn Holmberg Preserve at Rock Creek Farm, the group and its vocal leader, Dana Bove, wanted much more done to protect a locally famous nesting pair.
The pair had nested in a precarious tree in 2019 that did indeed topple, with eggs on board. They moved on to another precarious tree, and the watch group started agitating in 2021 for Boulder County to take more action. They wanted nearby farming activity restricted from a larger buffer zone, and offered to pay the costs of propping up the latest nesting tree after any hatchlings were safely gone.
“Based on our mapping, they are probably in the last viable nest tree in their three-kilometer territory,” Bove said. “That nest is being supported by at least one small dead limb, and will not likely last much longer.”
The group, Bove added, “does not promote intervention for the most part, but these bald eagles have been intervened with by human disturbance.”
Last summer, the Boulder County Attorney’s office wrote Bove back, saying county biologists “do not support artificial interventions, such as installing artificial nests or shoring up nests, believing that eagles know best where to site their nests.”
Colorado biologists are proud of their eagle record, the letter said. Existing open space agriculture does not appear to be bothering them when trail restrictions are set up properly, “and this year there was an unprecedented (at least in modern times) 29 eaglets that fledged from Boulder County nests,” the attorney’s office wrote.
Boulder County wildlife biologist Michelle Durant echoed others in arguing that birds, not people, should decide when a tree is no longer safe for a nest. “It’s always good, we feel, to let the birds select a different tree, and in most cases, we let nature run its course. What we try to do is to give the birds space.”
“No artificial nests” is not an absolute with Boulder County Open Space, Durant added. There have been talks with Colorado Parks and Wildlife about building a platform at Stearns Lake if the right spot becomes clear.
“Now there’s no guarantee that the birds are going to accept it. That’s the thing. You know, we’ve done this with ospreys and learned our lesson,” she said.
Don’t get biologists started on the ospreys
Ospreys, a more fish-centric raptor than the less finicky eagles, create their own set of mixed blessings for Front Range wildlife biologists.
Left on their own, the dynamic birds love to build nests in Xcel powerline towers, not realizing the platforms come with the real estate as-is of potential electrocution. Xcel cooperates with open space agencies to build substitute nests — which of course the ospreys don’t always take.
A City of Boulder osprey nest cam at Valmont Reservoir is wildly popular, with thousands of views, said ecological stewardship senior manager Heather Swanson. (Boulder County Open Space has another osprey nest cam at the county fairgrounds in Longmont.) Live wildlife images with a compelling backstory are great ways to help the public value habitat and conservation, biologists note.
But as with all social media and live footage, access makes “experts” out of a distractingly high number of residents with time on their hands.
“There’s been super windy days where people are concerned that we should go put something up to help block the nest from the wind,” Swanson said. “Or, go put a cover over the nest because it’s going to be hailing or snowing.”
The biologists’ response, Swanson said, is “these are the natural conditions that these birds live in. Our job isn’t to manage that, it’s just to provide them a good place to nest and then let things fall as they may.”
Will we catch you when you fall? Can we get back to you?
And fall they do.
A dazed fledgling hitting the ground before learning to soar is a cliché based on eons of reality. While on a hike or while watching the bird cams, some residents see a chick on the ground and simply can’t walk away.
Take young kestrels, said the rehab center’s Tincher. They are cliff dwellers, and after hatching and growing, they don’t use a series of high branches to fledge away from human sight as eagle chicks might.
“When they’re too big, they just bail on the ground, and then maybe bump around, climb up on bushes, and stuff like that. That’s normal,” Tincher said. But those facts are unknown to kestrel newcomers who come upon what they perceive to be an awkward, dangerous scene during a hike.
“People will say well, there’s cats and coyotes! Well, there’s cats and coyotes everywhere,” Tincher said. “We have to look at immediate danger.”
That’s where ubiquitous cellphones and sharing technology can be an advantage for rescuers, he added. Rehab centers used to waste untold time going out on calls, unable to assess the situation from a voice call. Now, they get pictures.
“Last night I got three calls about young great horned owls,” Tincher said. “All three pictures showed three youngsters doing what they do. So we play wait and see. We have triage by picture.”
From soaring updraft to a more level flight?
The public’s — and the biologists’ — affinity for intervention does vary by species, though some are reluctant to spell it out. They’re not building artificial platforms for seagulls, for example.
On the interventionist side, few efforts match the dedication and ingenuity of California in pulling back the condor from the brink of extinction. Breeders took away the first egg of the season and raised the hatchling with hand puppets, knowing the double-clutching parent condors would then lay and hatch another that year.
Colorado biologists and amateur watchers worry that a few years of bad luck, from high winds or avian flu, could crack recent success with eagles. Bove’s group continues to push hard against allowing oil and gas development and new homebuilding in established raptor hunting grounds.
But if the positive trends continue, biologists also say they are starting to see a time when eagle growth will level off.
“There’s going to be a limit, there’s going to be a carrying capacity,” Boulder County’s Durant said. “I’m just not sure when that’s going to happen.”
An early sign of that, she added, would be eagle nests that no longer produce two or three viable chicks. In relatively dry climates without as many fish or other wildlife, eagles need broad hunting areas to accumulate the prairie dogs, trout, frogs and other food their babies need.
“Are they only able to successfully rear one chick because of limited resources?” Durant said.
“We’re not sure,” she said. “And that’s why we do long-term monitoring. So maybe we can extrapolate some meaning from this.”
This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members. Become a Basic+ Member to get Colorado Sunday in your inbox every week.