Nation's Oldest Bald Eagle Found Dead in New York

A bald eagle found dead in New York at age 38 was the longest-lived on record. Animal conservationists believe, however, that there may be untagged bald eagles—such as this one, in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in Alaska—that may have lived just as long, or longer. Bob Strong/Reuters

There was a time when bald eagles were lucky to just successfully hatch out of their shell. Poisoning by the insecticide DDT, which thinned the raptors' shells, along with hunting and habitat destruction, reduced the population of breeding pairs to below 500 in the United States in the 1960s, putting their survival in doubt. Since the use of DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 and aggressive conservation measures like captive breeding programs were put in place, the bird has rebounded enormously. By 2007, the national bird of the U.S. was taken off the list of endangered and threatened species because of its recovery.

Bald eagles now have a better shot at living a full life—which means they are also more likely to die at a ripe, old age. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) reports that it has found the nation's oldest bald eagle dead in western New York, at a record-breaking 38 years of age. Before this find, the oldest-known bald eagle lived to be 33 years old.

The animal was spotted by a motorist on the side of the road, with a recently killed rabbit nearby. The motorist reported seeing another car hit the bird. The driver phoned in the find to the DEC, following the instructions on a band found around his ankle.

An ignominious end, for sure. But the fact that this bird lived to be 38 is testimony to the legislation enacted to save bald eagles and the attention paid to their plight, says Keith Bildstein, the director of conservation science at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a conservation organization and research center. It's "a remarkable consequence of federal and state actions that tell us that when enough people care about a native bird we can make a difference in environmental and species protection," he says.

Scientists transported this male eagle from Wisconsin to New York in 1977 while still a nestling. At a few months of age, in August of that year, they placed a band around his leg with his number, 03142—perhaps we can call him Pi?

We "had no idea how very special and significant this young bald eagle would become to our nascent bald eagle restoration program," said Peter Nye, retired biologist with the state, in a release. We "assume he has been the resident male, breeding here for the past 34 years. That's quite a stretch and likely a record in itself," he added.

During these breeding years, the eagle may have fathered as many as 50 or more young, Bildstein says.

Andrew DeWoody, a researcher at Purdue University, says it was "really neat" to find an eagle this old, especially since an eagle's age cannot be easily determined without bands. That said, it may not be too uncommon for birds to live to around this age; few individual birds are well-studied throughout the course of their lives in the wild. He speculated that the bird might have been a little less agile in its older years, and that could have contributed to being hit by a car. Then again, it could have just been bad luck in the form of an unexpected gust of wind.

Vehicle collisions are a major cause of death for eagles in New York state, accounting for more than 30 percent of mortality.

Mike Wasilco, a wildlife manager for the state DEC, told Newsday that a necropsy will be done to confirm the cause of death. Then, by federal law, the bird will be sent to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado. There, its feathers will be plucked to be used by Native Americans and Alaskan Indians for "religious and cultural purposes."

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the eagle was brought to New York in 1997. The bird's arrival in New York was actually 1977.