After DDT scourge, bald eagles return to Catalina

Bald eagles, Catalina Island, California
A bald eagle from Catalina Island off California.
CBS News

America's national bird is flying high again over a West Coast island that DDT pollution drove them from forty years ago.

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports that dedicated rescuers deserve all the credit. Twenty-two miles across the sea from Los Angeles, Catalina Island has a reputation for romance.

It's also the adopted home of the American bison. Now, another American icon is native to Catalina that previously hasn't done as well: Bald eagles.

"By the mid-60's, they were all gone from this - Catalina Island and the California Channel Islands," says Peter Sharpe with the Institute for Wildlife Studies.

For 15 years, Sharpe has been working to bring bald eagles back to Catalina, a project that lately has been having some notable success.

"We spend a lot of the early parts of the year scanning the coastline for any activity," Sharpe says.

To get an even closer look at the island's growing eagle population from the moment chicks break open their eggs, Sharpe has set up remote cameras looking into the nests.

"it saves us a lot of time. It gives us more information on what's actually going on at the nest," Sharpe says.

Not only can he monitor how the adults are caring for the fast growing chicks, he streams the whole "Eagle-cam" reality show live on the internet for anyone to watch.

"They're seeing things that until five or ten years ago, most people never got to see," Sharpe says.

The change is all the more impressive because Eagles were once in so much trouble here. The natural beauty of the islands and the ocean hides something ugly. Until the 1960's the Pacific off Southern California was a dumping ground for thousands of tons of waste contaminated with the pesticide DDT.

"The DDT has not disappeared from the environment. The birds are still picking it up," Sharpe says.

For decades the DDT made the birds' eggs so thin, the shells would break before hatching. So Sharpe's team hatched them in incubators and then hand raised the chicks until they were strong enough to be returned to the nest with their parents.

"The adults did most of the work, but we did the stressful part," Sharpe says.

Over the last five years, DDT levels appear to have dropped enough that the eggs can survive in the nest. So the days of hand-raising eagle chicks have now ended

Today, when they are eight weeks old, almost big enough to fly, Sharpe climbs into the nest to tag the young birds. With only seven breeding pairs on Catalina every eagle counts...especially to Sharpe who hand-raised some of the birds that are now parents.

"I guess I have a little bit more attachment to these because I'm a grandfather now," Sharpe says.

He's also pleased that nature here no longer needs quite as much help to do what comes naturally.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.