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Bald eagles making big comeback in New York City

Bald eagles making a big comeback in New York City 02:26

NEW YORK -- You may have noticed more bald eagle sightings than usual in the Big Apple. That's because America's bird is making a big comeback.

CBS2's Michael George on Tuesday got a tour with an urban park ranger, who helped bring the magnificent creatures back from the brink of extinction.

They're majestic and fierce.

"They'll just glide right over your head, sometimes, and it's just such an amazing feeling," Sgt. Rob Mastrianni said.

But lately, bald eagles have been turning up in the unlikeliest of places, like New York City.

In January, bystanders in Central Park were awestruck when they witnessed one, nicknamed "Rover," catch a seagull in mid-flight.

"Eventually, they're going to start to nest here and live here full time," Mastrianni said.

Mastrianni has been part of a more than 20-year effort to bring the bald eagles back to New York. The birds used to be plentiful here, but pollution of the city's rivers and the pesticide DDT brought them to the brink of extinction.

"What happened was the eggshells got really thin from this pesticide. The eggs would break and they weren't reproducing," Mastrianni said.

"How dire did things get for the bald eagles here?" George asked.

"So, yeah, basically, they were almost extinct from New York state, and of course, New York City," Mastrianni said.

A bald eagle was spotted in Central Park in January 2022. (Credit: Twitter user venusnabs)

Starting in 2001, the Parks Department relocated 20 fledgling eagles from Alaska and Wisconsin to Manhattan's Inwood Hill Park. George saw a picture of Mastrianni from back in 2006, feeding the baby eagles.

"So, we'd climb up a ladder. It's about 40 or 50 feet, and there's a little opening on the nest box where we'd slide the fish in. So it'd be like an invisible mom or dad bringing them food," Mastrianni said.

The U.S. government banned the use of DDT in 1972 and in recent years, more funding and resources have been put toward cleaning up New York's rivers. Now, the eagles are thriving. The babies Mastrianni helped raise have families and nests of their own, and have migrated to other areas.

"You've been involved with these eagles for 16 years now. Do you develop a personal connection with them?" George asked.

"Um, well, yeah," Mastrianni said. "On one of my days off, I went over to visit the nest, had my binoculars, and it was a great feeling to see her with her family, raising her young, so I kind of felt like a proud parent."

In the '70s, there were believed to be just two bald eagles left in the entire state of New York. Now, there are close to 1,000, and they're no longer considered endangered. They've been spotted in all five boroughs of New York City.

So, if you're lucky enough, on a cold morning along the Hudson River, you just may spot one commuting on an ice floe.

"What are they hunting for out here?" George asked.

"Out here, they love fish, so they're going for fish. That's their preferred prey," Mastrianni said.

And as beautiful as the birds are to see in the sky, it's nothing compared to seeing one up close.

Bobby Horvath, a wildlife rehabilitator, introduced George to Montana, a 12-year-old adult male bald eagle.

"We rescued him, and, unfortunately, when we picked him up he had a broken right wing, broken right leg, and he's blind in one eye," Horvath said.

But surviving in a major metropolis presents its own set of challenges. One eagle was killed by a Metro-North train, and in February, Horvath rescued a fledgling. His wings were tangled in a fishing line.

"It had surgery this week, and we won't know for a few months if that bird is fully recovered," Horvath said.

The eagle's greatest threat is us. The locations of their nests are shrouded in secrecy to prevent curious crowds from gathering close by.

When asked what humans do to protect them, Horvath said, "Appreciate and enjoy them, but just give them their space."

We came close to losing these birds forever, but now they're becoming our neighbors once again.  

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