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Big Bear Baby Eagle Death Sad But Not Surprising, Expert Says

A bald eage looks over its three eaglets. | Keith Williams / Creative Commons
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Jackie preens in front of her sprawling million-dollar view of Big Bear Lake. It’s a sunny 60-degree afternoon in the mountains of San Bernardino, California as her partner Shadow drops off a long-awaited fresh fish dinner. His mate cackles at him until he leaves, then she mantles over the prey, shreds the meat with her beak, and feeds it to their son Simba. The two feast until the fish is gone, then she pecks at the fly-covered carcass of her other son Cookie, who froze to death on May 27, just a few days prior when temperatures suddenly dipped to 26 degrees, bringing rain and snow. Tonight as the sun sets and winds ruffle his black feathers, Simba sidles up to the dead bird, sleeping next to him as he has since they first hatched in mid-April. Mama perches on a nearby limb, with her back turned on her offspring, scanning the lake until the last light fades and her head droops in sleep.

It’s high drama in the Jeffrey pines and the live cam of the Big Bear Bald eagle nest may be the hottest unscripted web documentary at the moment, with viewers following the saga of the birds of prey, who first settled in Big Bear, California in the fall of 2013. This nest sits on San Bernardino National Forest land, which only started counting bald eagles 30 years ago, when eagles were known to briefly winter in Big Bear for food.

Jackie and Shadow oversee the two eggs in their nest. | Still courtesy of Friends of Big Bear Valley's Facebook page
Jackie and Shadow oversee the two eggs in their nest. | Still courtesy of Friends of Big Bear Valley's Facebook page

In the summer of 2009, a tagged juvenile from nearby Catalina Island was spotted there, and by 2012, a mated pair nicknamed Lucy and Ricky hatched the first eagle chick in recorded Big Bear history. The female fledged, never to be seen again. The original pair successfully hatched three more chicks over the next few years.

When an unidentified bird began building her nest near Lucy and Ricky’s nest, Friends of Big Bear Valley (FOBBV), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the 15-mile Big Bear Valley, named the bird Jackie. The organization installed a solar-powered wildlife camera atop the 120-foot tree in 2015 with the help of a permitted tree-climbing raptor biologist and an eagle specialist. Jackie mated with a mysterious eagle the National Forest Service dubbed Mr. B, but only one chick named Stormy survived. Jackie may be a descendant of Lucy and Ricky’s, but experts are not sure, as she was never tagged. It’s unclear where Shadow came from.

Simba and Cookie are labeled ‘ZR1’ and ‘ZJ1’ on their silver and purple bracelets but were named by area 3rd graders in a contest held by FOBBV which helped raise $7,000 for the camera system. The nest’s surrounding area is closed to the public during nesting season and the biologist occasionally cleans the camera lens, as needed.

FOBBV maintain an active Facebook page, where followers receive updated video clips with written context for what’s happening in the nest each day. The sounds and sights of mountain chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, Western tanagers, Steller's jays, hummingbirds and the ever-present ravens, known for their sneak-attacks and food-thieving ways, are all a part of the daily on-camera action, too.

Enrapt fans have followed the livestream from Jackie and Shadow mating and caring for their recent eggs over a five-week period, through the fortifying of the nest, and the hatching of the chicks on April 14th and 15th, which made national news. They’ve witnessed the banding of the hatchlings, and cheered them on through first feedings and awkward attempts at feeding themselves at six weeks old. The camera has captured the baby birds’ growth from scrawny grey-downed babies into black fluffy eaglets, and then the recent tragedy. Comments in Facebook threads range from “Maybe Jackie’s a tiger mom?” to “This boy won’t even feed himself... I think he’s planning on being a basement dwelling adult living in his parents’ nest for life,” and “I had to step away after Cookie’s death.”

When Humans and Wildlife Interact

As difficult as it may be for some humans to stomach, what’s happening is not unusual, says Carie Battistone, a senior environmental scientist/the statewide raptor conservation coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “When a nestling dies in the nest, multiple things can happen to it… There are typically various carcasses present as the parents bring prey for the nestlings, so having the dead chick remain in the nest is not all that surprising.” She reminds us that nature is not pleasant to witness at times. “It’s often a hard and unforgiving process, one that humans don’t always understand because it is not how we do things.” The nest cams are a learning experience for both biologists and laypeople but it’s important for viewers to know that “Eagles are wild and bad things sometimes do happen,” she says, stressing that our empathy is just as natural. “We often do not intervene when bad things happen. In most cases, we choose to let nature take its course, even if it is difficult to see. This is a hard concept to grasp for people watching live video feed as it is normal for humans to be disturbed and emotional about what they see.”

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from its list of threatened and endangered species in 2007, the species as a whole remains endangered under California state law. Thanks to the concerted effort of environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the species is enjoying something of a comeback. While sad, Cookie’s death is not surprising. The USFWS estimates the mortality rate during an eagle’s first year of life is greater than 50 percent. Only about 1 in 10 eagles survive into adulthood, which is reached at age 5, when their head feathers start to turn white. When they live uninterrupted by hunters, trains, wire electrocution, poison, and other threats, adults can live up to 30 years.

Simba and Cookie rest in their nest. | Still courtesy of Friends of Big Bear Valley's Facebook page
Simba and Cookie rest in their nest. | Still courtesy of Friends of Big Bear Valley's Facebook page

If all goes well, Simba will learn to fly in a few weeks. He’s already practicing his balance by standing on broken sticks within the nest. “After the remaining eagle takes its first flight, it may stay close and make frequent trips back into the nest to be fed,” says Battistone. “Over the first few weeks after first flight, it may stay perched in a nearby tree while it practices flight and hunting.  The parents often keep feeding the chick during these weeks.” Since most eagles mate for life, Jackie and Shadow are likely to parent other eagles in the future.

Will Simba soar to success? Will migration bring him back? Is it true love for Jackie and Shadow? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, Battistone encourages the public to volunteer in eagle monitoring initiatives through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Reporting bald eagle nesting activity is something the public can do to help us understand distribution and breeding numbers,” says Battistone.

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