Myth is Reality: Discovery of Bald Eagles Nesting in a Saguaro Confirms Longtime Speculation

PHOENIX – For eight decades, biologists have speculated that bald eagles build their nests in large saguaros.

This week, that speculation became reality.

The Arizona Game & Fish Department on Wednesday announced the discovery of the first bald eagle nest in a saguaro since before World War II.

“It was absolutely amazing when I got the first report,” said Kenneth Jacobson, raptor management coordinator for the department. “When we were able to get out there and see (the nest) from the ground and verify it was quite exciting.”

The nest was first reported by a member of the public, and Game & Fish flew over to confirm the report. Biologists say there are two bald eagles and an unknown number of eaglets in the nest, which is near a central Arizona reservoir.

“This is something biologists in Arizona have been aware of the possibility since the 1970s,” Jacobson said. “We’ve been looking for them, so finally finding one and seeing one is quite amazing since it’s been on our radar for a very long time.”

The only other record of a saguaro nest was in 1937, Jacobson said. In the 1970s, biologists found a mention to Kermit Lee of Lee’s Trading Post, who had reported large nests in saguaros along the lower Verde River.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on large saguaros for decades,” Jacobson said. “But all the ones that were seen with large nests had no documentation of egg laying or raising of young or any information like that.”

The department won’t disclose the location of the nest to protect the birds and their habitat.

“This is one of those things that is pretty exciting, but the last thing we want to do is draw a lot of attention to it,” Jacobson said. “If we get a lot of people coming out and checking it out we may end up inadvertently causing problems for their nesting attempts.”

The years of speculating are finally over for biologists like Jacobson, and confirmation is as thrilling as he expected.

“It’s been an 18-year trek for me, keeping my eye out for a bald eagle nest in a saguaro, so finally finding one is amazing,” Jacobson said in the department’s press release.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Feds to reconsider yellow-billed cuckoo’s threatened species status

WASHINGTON – Federal officials said they will re-evaluate the threatened species status of the western yellow-billed cuckoo, after petitions from Arizona miners, ranchers and other groups argued that the species is no different from thriving eastern populations of the bird.

The notice Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes in response to a May 2017 letter from the groups who argued that the 2014 decision to declare the bird threatened was a mistake. They also said that threats to the bird’s survival “do not now and never have risen to the level that protection under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) is warranted.”

But environmental groups said they will fight any move to remove the cuckoo, which they said “plays a unique role in an ecosystem, being up there in the canopy and ambushing caterpillars and other small invertebrates.”

“These tenacious, beautiful birds play an essential role in balancing nature in areas, but they also build a metric for how well we conserve beautiful areas that we all value,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said that while the yellow-billed cuckoo is found throughout the eastern and central U.S., the western subspecies of the bird is disappearing over much of the West. They prefer dense wooded areas with water nearby, but much of its habitat in the West has been lost to farming and housing, the government said.

It also said that the birds, as long-distance, nocturnal fliers, are “vulnerable to collisions with tall buildings, cell towers, radio antennas, wind turbines and other structures.”

The National Park Service said the western yellow-billed cuckoo has nearly vanished in the Pacific Northwest, with most of the remaining birds found in “isolated patches of riparian habitat along rivers in Arizona, California, and New Mexico.” It is found in limited numbers in every county in Arizona, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The Center for Biological Diversity said the cuckoo’s western population was “first identified as needing federal protection in 1986,” and the center first petitioned to have it listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.

But opponents – including the Arizona Mining Association and Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, among others – are challenging the listing of the western birds as a separate subspecies. Their petition said that based on “both new data and new interpretations of previously available information,” they believe the western populations of the bird are no different from the eastern segments.

The government has said that there is enough new evidence for it to begin a review.

“The crux of the petition is questioning the differentiation between the eastern and the western (yellow-billed cuckoo),” said Jennifer Norris, the field supervisor at the Sacramento office of Fish and Wildlife. “The petition was to delist it. If we got through this long process and agree with that proposal, it would be taken off the list.”

Over the next year, Fish and Wildlife officials will collaborate with state agencies and other authorities to complete a comprehensive species status assessment, looking at the fundamentals about the species and its status and threats.

But agency officials stressed that this is just the first step in what could be a long process.

“The western (population) of the yellow-billed cuckoo will remain listed as threatened pending what is realistically a two-year scientific process,” said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife