Tennessee eagle No. 3 looked glum.
In just two hours, the baby bald eagle had been plucked from its nest in a tall spruce, lowered to the ground in a sack, put in a portable dog pen and ferried on a bouncing skiff to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vessel.The bird was to become one of more than 300 bald eagles captured in Alaska and relocated to other states in an effort to replenish the threatened national symbol.
Bald eagles, an endangered species in every other state because of lead poisoning, pollution and other man-made dangers, are abundant in southeast Alaska, numbering about 12,000 at biologists' last count - about the number in all the other states combined.
The region has become the stocking ground for eagle-recovery programs in five states.
"The demand for birds is getting so great the supply can't meet the demand, and Alaska's been a great bonanza for us," said Robert D. Smith of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which hopes to release 60 bald eagles by 1990.
Including 46 exported this year, Alaska has contributed 264 bald eagles for relocation in New York, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee, said Mike Jacobson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau.
From 1980 to 1987, 400 eagles from Alaska and elsewhere were relocated in more than a dozen states, authorities say.
Sightings of birds and nests make biologists confident the program is succeeding, though they won't have statistical proof for a few years.
An eagle expedition begins with time-consuming helicopter surveys. Fish and Wildlife workers fly over some 200 miles of coastline each spring, plotting nests. Though eagle nests often span 8 feet or more, the sticks, grass and other matter they're made of camouflage them in the rain forest.
Come July, biologists from other states fly in and board two 65-foot military surplus vessels run by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The capture area is a half-day's cruise away in the middle of the Tongass National Forest.
Once there, Tennessee conservationist Kevin Schutt and fellow tree-scaler Dave Evans climb to the nests.
While they ascend, the adult birds fly in agitated circles or perch in trees nearby, keening and trilling, and shy away from the climber and his assistants. The young birds don't resist.
"Eagles, they're pretty docile," said Schutt.
"I don't think they've (climbers) ever been struck on this project. It would be kind of unnerving to be 80 feet up a tree and struck by a bird that's 12 to 14 pounds," said Fish and Wildlife's Phil Schempf.
Though the young eagles appear nearly full-size when they're captured at 6 to 7 weeks of age, their feathers are soft and their bodies unprepared for flight. They usually begin flying at 10 to 12 weeks.
They don't gain the characteristic white head and tail feathers until they are 3 or 4 years old, and their immature plummage varies from dark brown to mottled brown and white.
Caretakers band their legs for identification and dust them with flea powder to kill feather lice.