Restoring the fish population in the Anacostia River is key to having bald eagles return to Washington. A pair of eagles nested on Kingman's Island in the Anacostia until 1946, when they could no longer feed themselves and their offspring because pollution had killed the fish.
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"We are working on restoring the eagles' habitat by removing the blockages to fish migrations, so we can get the fish populations up," Nixon said. "There is no point in bringing in bald eagles if there is nothing for them to eat. The fish are first, but one of our focal points is returning the eagle to this habitat."
Another key factor for eagles is the fact that, along most of its length, the banks of the Anacostia are unspoiled by development. "What is fanatastic about the Anacostia is that the habitat is still intact," Nixon said. "You can go from Bladensburg, get in your canoe, come down the river's five miles, and all you will see are the bridges. There are no roads running parallel to the Anacostia, and it's all National, or City Park land. It has been protected as a green, riparian belt, which is why we are releasing the bald eagles here. It is very much as it was 50 years ago, and it's something very much worth saving."
Each June, for the past three years, the ECC has shipped four baby eaglets from Wisconsin, where there is a healthy eagle population, to a nesting box on the west bank of the Anacostia River in the 444-acre U.S. National Arboretum. The eagles are all "terminal eagles" -- the third- or fourth-born in a nest -- and are not likely to have survived if they had been left to fend for themselves.
Once ensconced in their nesting box, the young eagles receive daily deliveries of fish from ECC members, who use a rope pulley to raise a bucket to the box, 60 feet up in a cottonwood tree. This way the eaglets do not imprint their human caterers as parents.
Many organizations have donated services to support the eagles. Fish are donated by retail merchants in the Maine Avenue fish market. The ECC's Eagle Corps is a partnership involving the DC Housing Authority, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and other organizations.
I have had to divest myself of the expectations process, because, of the original nine ECC members, three were murdered in the past year
In mid- to late-July, the eagles are set free. If all goes well, they will make a home for themselves in nests along the Anacostia River valley after five to six years, when they are ready to breed. "The class of '95 will be sexually mature at the turn of the century," Nixon notes.
So far, 12 eagles have been released. "They are around," Nixon said. "We are seeing them. They are still hanging around here, so we think there is a very good chance that they will nest. We have a satellite tracking device on one of them, which is not too far downstream now. The others, we just know by spotting."
Eagles already occupy choice spots on the Potomac River above Washington near Great Falls, and below the mouth of the Anacostia around Mason's Neck. The ECC's eagles "roost at night in big trees on the Anacostia River, where there is lots of peace and quiet, and plenty of habitat," Nixon said. "It's like a hole in the population that they are filling." Should you try to spot the eagles yourself, keep in mind that the young eagles will not get their signature white head feathers until they are five years old.
The young eagles battle to survive in an environment that has been too impoverished to support their species is a poignant reminder that ECC members are fighting to rise above their own circumstances. "We are not doing all this stuff for the eagles, or the fish," Nixon said. "It's for the people who live here. Let's look toward the future, to something better."
But the future is not assured. "I have had to divest myself of the expectations process, because, of the original nine ECC members, three were murdered in the past year," Nixon said. "This a very challenging road that the young men and women of our city have to travel."
Gerald "Tink" Huelett was stabbed for $10, Bennie Marcus Jones was beaten to death with a lead pipe in a case of mistaken identity, and Darrell Roberts was shot. Huelett and Jones were two of the nine founding members of the ECC, and Roberts was a high school student who volunteered more than 100 hours of community service with the ECC in order to graduate. Three of the eagles released this fall bear their names: "Tink," "Bennie," and "Darrell." It's sad to think that their survival rate may be better than the first human participants in the ECC.
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