NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Nurturing baby American Bald Eagles in a
man-made crib atop a 23-foot tower seems like a tall tale, but that
is exactly how biologists carried out a conservation plan in the
late 1980s to restore the nation's symbol to the upper Cumberland
From 1987 to 1991 a total of 44 eagles were
transplanted from nests in Alaska, Minnesota and Wisconsin and then
reared, tagged and released on the shoreline of Dale Hollow Lake
near Irons Creek. The team utilized a technique called “Hacking” to
care for then release the birds of prey in hopes they would someday
return to the vicinity of where they first took flight to nest and
During that span, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Nashville District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee
Wildlife Resources Agency, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife,
Tennessee Valley Authority, Tennessee Conservation League (now
Tennessee Wildlife Federation), Tennessee Technological University,
Alaska Department of Fish and Game, National Park Service and U.S.
Forest Service in Alaska, Boy Scouts of America, Wildlife
Preservation Corps and local volunteers had a role in reintroducing
the eagles to habitats along waterways in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Patty Coffey, deputy chief of the Nashville District
Operations Division, is the wildlife biologist who served in the
Planning Branch as the project manager of the Eagle Restoration
Program nearly three decades ago.
Patty Coffey, deputy chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Nashville District Operations Division, holds a photo in her office
Dec. 8, 2014, of her hydrating a young American Bald Eagle at Dale
Hollow Lake July 27, 1989, as part of the Eagle Restoration Project.
Coffey, a wildlife biologist, served as the project manager for the
program that transported 18 eaglets in July 1989 from Wisconsin and
Alaska to Tennessee to reestablish the American Bald Eagle to the
upper Cumberland region. Twelve eaglets were bound for the Tennessee
Wildlife Resources Agency to place at Chickamauga Lake, although one
died during the trip and six were resettled at Dale Hollow Lake. A
total of 44 eaglets were resettled at Dale Hollow Lake between 1987
and 1991. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Leon Roberts)
She said that eagles declined in Tennessee between the
1950s and 1970s because of the insecticide DDT, which caused
infertility or thin egg shells that would break under the
weight of adult birds. Due to the banning of DDT and
restoration efforts, there are now more than 200 eagle nests
across the state of Tennessee, Coffey said.
A lot of
different agencies and people were involved with the
logistics of locating and obtaining young eagles,
transplanting them, site preparation and building the
hacking tower at Dale Hollow Lake, caring for eagles and
tracking them initially upon their release to ensure a
smooth transition into the wild.
“My role was
primarily working with the other agencies making
arrangements for transportation, actually acquiring them and
then getting them safely back to Tennessee to the hacking
tower where TWRA and Tennessee Tech University and the staff
at Dale Hollow were extremely involved in making sure,
working with volunteers, to get the fish that would feed
those eagles while we kept them,” Coffey said.
maintenance staff and park rangers initially made
preparations and worked with Professor Ray Jordan at TTU on
the blueprint and specifications for a hacking tower and its
Frank Massa, the natural resource
manager at Dale Hollow Lake during this project, said his
team cleared a section of land near the water to provide a
runway of sorts for when the eagles would fly for the first
time. A lot of effort also went into building a safe tower
that would allow the birds to be isolated yet provide
caretakers an ability to observe through a two-way mirror,
and added features to easily water and feed them, he said.
“We ended up deciding on the type of tower that was
built at Dale Hollow, which was built on utility poles that
we got from Upper Cumberland Electric, and built the tower
that we actually used there on Dale Hollow Lake,” Massa
Massa, who retired from the Corps in 2001, said
they used a small dozer to clear brush and young saplings
from the field site and they delivered a power truck and
crew from Upper Cumberland Electric on a barge to auger
holes to put the utility poles in position.
recollection, cross braces were installed and the flooring
of the tower sat approximately 21 feet off the ground. The
maintenance staff built cages facing the lake and an
observation area, and installed Burlap behind a two-way
mirror so the birds would not see people documenting their
activities. The staff also added features allowing for
feeding and watering of the eagles without human
Park Ranger Gregg Nivens, who worked
with the wildlife management program at Dale Hollow Lake
during the project, said in the 1980s most people didn't see
the American Bald Eagle flying over the lake unless they
were fishing in the winter when eagles would come to feed on
fish and coots.
After the completion of the hacking
tower in 1987, the eaglets took residence. Over the next
four years birds arrived in pet crates and they would often
be stressed by their travels, human contact and the 90-plus
degree temperatures during the summer at Dale Hollow Lake.
Veterinarians would check the birds if needed, but
often the best thing to get them feeling better involved
giving them electrolytes in the form of Gatorade.
“They took a little squeeze bottle and squirted Gatorade in
their mouth, and that perked them up,” Massa said.
TTU students were involved with caring for the eaglets on a
23-foot tower 24 hours a day for up to six weeks. They fed
eagles with fish and sometimes meat using drawers from the
observation area. In addition, water was pumped up through a
tube into a container where the birds could bathe and have
water. They even had the ability to empty the water to
ensure fresh water would be available at all times.
Jordan, biology professor at TTU, directed the hacking
program and supervised students observing and caring for the
eagles from the time they arrived until they flew away from
the vicinity of the lake after being released.
professor said they were getting hatchlings in the hacking
tower from colder climates in the north, which was a major
adjustment for the birds, and biology students fed them and
kept meticulous records as they acclimated to the hotter
“We were trying to turn Yankee eagles
into southern eagles,” Jordan said. “It was a lot of
observation, long hours just watching the birds, their
behavior patterns and they had to feed them every day. They
had to take them fresh water.”
Several TTU students
that spent a whole summer living on a house boat and working
in the hacking tower observing and caring for the eagles
would later go to work for the Corps of Engineers at Dale
Stephen Beason, currently the natural
resource manager, said he took a topics class in biology
that Jordan taught, and the class got involved in the Eagle
Restoration Program funded by the Corps of Engineers.
“My job as one of the students was to observe, monitor,
feed and document the actions of the eagles that were placed
in the tower,” Beason said. “There were two shifts and
another student worked with me on the project.”
Beason said as a student he spent a lot of time looking
through the two-way mirror and writing down notes about the
eagles' feeding habits, if they were active or still, if
they were preening, which is grooming themselves or one
another with their beaks, and whenever they flapped their
“It was exciting to watch them grow from the
time they were four weeks old till they were fledglings and
actually took their first flight,” Beason said.
Beason wasn't on the tower, fellow student Jimmy Carter kept
Carter, part contract inspector with the Corps
of Engineers at Dale Hollow Lake, served as a student
coordinator at TTU during the Eagle Restoration Program. He
said he remembers taking copious notes for 12 hours at a
time and cutting up trout every day for the eagles to eat.
“It was real fun and I did it for two summers,” Carter
said. “We have nesting sites at the lake now. I would like
to think that we contributed some to the reintroduction of
the eagles in this area.”
The Dale Hollow National
Fish Hatchery provided some trout to the project and local
fishermen donated rough fish like Carp and leftovers from
cleaning them to Willow Grove Marina, which stored donations
in a freezer to feed the eagles. The Corps required a supply
of fish because a growing eagle needed approximately five
pounds of fish or meat daily.
“A lot of people helped
and supported us with it,” Massa said.
Gregg Nivens was a young employee of the Nashville District
at Dale Hollow Lake during the project and said it was his
job was to operate the boat and make sure supplies and food
were delivered to the hacking tower. They fed them mostly
fish, but they occasionally ate meat, he said.
made sure they had food for them to eat,” Nivens said. “I
believe a wildlife officer even brought in some road kill
deer for them and fed them venison too.”
partnered with the Corps of Engineers and provided a lot of
assistance during the entire hacking process. Bob Hatcher,
non-game and endangered species coordinator, spent numerous
days at Dale Hollow Lake lending his expertise through the
entire process. He passed away in July 2014, but is credited
with the release of 284 eagles across the state of Tennessee
over a 22-year period.
In 1987, Hatcher explained in
a media interview that eagles become imprinted on the area
where they first learn to fly and they usually return to
nest within 75 miles of that location.
then is to raise the eaglet until it can be released so it
can then return in four to five years when it has sexually
matured and is ready to reproduce. From that point it will
live year around in the nesting location.
amazing little animals because they come from an egg about
the size of my fist and then after only 12 weeks they'll
reach the 10 to 12 pound range. So their growth rate is
quite phenomenal,” Coffey said. “But at about 12 weeks of
age they're ready to fly.”
The front of the hacking
tower had gates that could be lowered to allow the eagle to
fly away. Corps of Engineers, TWRA and TTU officials worked
together to attach transmitters on every eagle using
superglue and dental floss, which allowed the eagles to be
tracked for a short time at the lake after their release to
monitor their safety. The eagles shed these feathers within
a year after being released.
Eagles have fierce
predatory instincts, powerful talons and sharp bite for
tearing into their prey, characteristics that proved
challenging for biologists that were involved with attaching
the transmitter and wing markers.
Coffey said the
team also applied a pat agile, which is a wing marker on
each of them with a large number for spotting purposes and
to help hunters with identifying them and protecting them.
“They don't get their bald heads, the white feathers
on their heads, until they're about three to five years old.
When they become sexually mature is when they get that full
white head,” she said.
Massa said he always enjoyed
watching when the gates were lowered to release the eagles
because some birds were eager to leave while others took
“It's just like birds on a nest ... it seems
like the mother bird would have to coax some of them off and
some of them would be ready to go right away. They each had
their own personalities it seemed like,” Massa said. “The
main thing was to have a good clear flyway and of course
they monitored those birds with the tracking device until
they left the area. Normally most of them would stay in the
area anywhere from four or five days to a week and a half
before they ventured and left, and most of them would go
In 1987, two eagles were released. In 1988
six eagles were released. In 1989, 11 eagles were released.
In 1990, 13 eagles were released. In 1991, 12 eagles were
released. Today the American Bald Eagle nests at Dale Hollow
Lake and surrounding waterways and can be seen flying
overhead all year.
“I guess you would call it
majestic ... it is,” Nivens said. “You see the big white head
up there and you're mesmerized when you sit and watch a bald
Other individuals involved in the Eagle Watch
Restoration Project include Park Rangers Jeff Orten, Sherry
Roberts and Ron Timberlake, and Joe Cathey, Nashville
District Environmental Resources Branch chief. American
Airlines transported the eaglets to Tennessee at no cost.
Dale Hollow Lake conducts annual Eagle Watch programs
the third and fourth Saturday of January. Eagle enthusiasts
are transported by open barge in search of wintering bald
eagles. The eagle watch tours are free, but advance
reservations are required.
For more information go to the Nashville District's website.
More photos available in frame below
By Leon Roberts, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
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