A banded, bald eagle found dead Tuesday on an upstate roadway turned out to be 38 years old, the oldest one recovered so far in a national effort to bring the species back from the brink of extinction, New York state and federal environmental agencies said.
"It's the oldest bald eagle that's ever been documented in the wild," said Mike Wasilco, a wildlife manager for the state Environmental Department of Conservation.
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The male, found in the town of Henrietta in Monroe County, had killed a rabbit nearby and apparently had been hit by a vehicle, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. It beat the last record by five years, a banded eagle who was 33 when hit by a vehicle last year in Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which oversees the North American Bird Banding Program.
The average lifespan of wild eagles is 15 to 20 years, said Wasilco, who works for DEC Region 8, which covers Monroe County.
According to records, the bird was brought from northern Minnesota as as part of New York's Bald Eagle Restoration Program and was one of five young eagles raised and released at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in the second year of the program.
No. 03142 was placed around his leg in August 1977 and when he reached breeding age in 1981, it started nesting at Hemlock Lake, now part of Hemlock-Canadice State Forest.
Such efforts helped get the bald eagle off the federal endangered species list and shifted its New York status from endangered to threatened.
DEC officials touted the bird's longevity as a sign of the state's success in bringing back the species. The bald eagle population nationwide had been decimated decades ago by the DDT chemical pesticide, and following federal bans on DDT in 1972 and on killing and taking bald eagles in 1973, New York started a Bald Eagle Restoration Project in 1976.
The state is now home to 350 pairs of nesting bald eagles, according to the DEC.
"This record eagle is a testament to the diligent conservation and restoration work done under New York's Bald Eagle Restoration Program," Marc Gerstman, DEC executive deputy commissioner, said in a news release. "It's truly noteworthy that this eagle lived a long life and thrived in New York, returning to his New York nest site to continue breeding."
No. 03142 had not been dead for long when a passerby contacted authorities, as the band requested, and a caller later reported seeing the bird struck by a car, Wasilco said. Vehicle collisions are one of the leading causes of eagle deaths in New York, accounting for more than 30 percent of known recorded mortality, DEC officials said.
As soon as he saw the silvery band, Wasilco said, he knew the bird was old because the wording on bird bands have changed over the decades.
Eagles raise one to three young birds a year, he said, and there's little doubt that No. 03142's progency have been banded. All birds in bald eagle nests had been banded up until about seven years ago, he said: "We were getting so many, we could not keep up with it."
Danny Bystrak, a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said No. 03142 was probably no longer fast enough to avoid being struck by a vehicle or would have thought twice in his younger days about snatching a rabbit so close to a road.
"When a bird is that old, just like an old person, they don't necessarily have all their faculties about them."
Wasilco said a necropsy will be done to find cause of death. Then by federal law, No. 03142 will be sent to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado so its feathers can be used by Native Americans and Alaskan Indians for religious and cultural purposes.
For information on bald eagles and DEC's Bald Eagle Program, go to www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7068.html.