Scoping out the chicks

EUGENE — People with binoculars have been flocking to Skinner Butte all spring, hoping to get a glimpse of Eugene's celebrated pair of resident bald eagles and monitor the progress of their rapidly growing offspring.

For some, the stately symbols of the Union are a stop on a broader birdwatching routine. For others, it's a first-time ornithological foray. But for Jeff Harrison and his wife, Louise Jackson, who can see the big birds' favorite perch from their house, the annual return of the bald eagles embodies a spiritual connection with their son, Jonah Jackson, who died three years ago at age 29.

"We first heard the eagles on Feb. 27, 2007," Harrison says. "Jonah had just died — we had just had a service for him that day at the Many Nations Longhouse (on the University of Oregon campus). We were sitting on our porch with family and friends, talking, and we heard an eagle jabbering. We had never heard an eagle here before."

The Harrison-Jackson family has a deep connection with the bald eagle. Louise Jackson, who is Native American, was born in White Eagle, Okla., and the eagle is her family totem. Although Harrison is not Native American, he once worked in the federal government's VISTA program, helping to start a tribal school in La Push, Wash. Because he was the only light-haired person there, the Quileute tribal members called him "Pixtadax," their word for bald eagle.

"Eagles have always been part of our life and Jonah's life — in our house, we have feathers or pictures or something to do with eagles in every room," Harrison said. "That night, when we all heard the eagle, everybody's eyes filled with tears. We all knew Jonah was still here and with us."

Unique to North America, the bald eagle has a brown body with a white head and tail, with yellow legs, feet and bill. Females are slightly larger than males, with a length of about 3 feet and a wingspan of as much as 7 feet. The birds weigh 10 to 14 pounds and can live 25 years or longer.

Bald eagles mate for life, usually returning to the same nesting spot year after year.

The bald eagle has been the official symbol of the nation since 1789, the year George Washington took office as the first president. However, not everyone supported that choice.

In a 1784 letter to a daughter, Benjamin Franklin — who once suggested the rattlesnake as the national symbol — called the bald eagle "a bird of bad moral character" because of its willingness to grab food from other birds as well as hunt on its own. "The turkey," Franklin said, "is a much more respectable bird."

More than 175 years later, when the pesticide DDT had begun taking its toll on the bald eagle population, rendering the shells of their eggs too weak to withstand the weight of the parents, veneration for the national symbol obviously had increased.

"The Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of our nation," President John Kennedy wrote to the Audubon Society, which had begun a campaign to save the endangered birds. "The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America."

In Franklin's time, bald eagles numbered at least 500,000 throughout North America but dwindled to as few as 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states by the time Kennedy took office, according to Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group that dates to 1947 and was instrumental in passage of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Since receiving federal protection, the number of nesting pairs in the United States has increased to 5,000, and an estimated 70,000 bald eagles now soar throughout North America. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed the birds from the endangered species list in 2007, but the bald eagle still has protection through the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection and the Migratory Bird Treaty acts.

"I was born and raised here, but I had never seen a bald eagle until I saw this pair," said Rick Wilcox, who worked for the California Highway Patrol before returning to the local area. "A friend told us in January or February about this nest, and he said the birds would be back."

Wilcox and his wife, Dixie Maurer-Clemons, made several trips up Skinner Butte before being rewarded with a view of one of the parents on the nest with two chicks. From then on, "Every time we would go up there, there would be five or six people watching," he said. "Some people said there were three chicks, but I said, 'Nah.'"

In fact, female bald eagles often do lay as many as three eggs at a time — incubation is about 35 days — but more than two chicks rarely survive. The parents share domestic duty, sitting on the eggs, and leaving to hunt. The chicks remain in the stick-built nest, which can be at least 8 feet in diameter and weigh as much as a ton, for several months, until they are completely capable of flying. It takes four or five years for bald eaglets' heads to turn white, giving them their striking adult appearance.

Bald eagles have become a much more familiar sight in the local area during the past several years as the population has increased. The online "Eagle Viewing Directory — Oregon" lists recent sightings along Interstate 5 north of Coburg, along Highway 99 between Eugene and Corvallis, and along the Willamette River near Harrisburg.

Harrison has been watching the Skinner Butte nest since he first glimpsed it in 2007.

"The first year, when the birds built their nest, one of them still had a brown spot on its head, so I know it was only about 3 years old," he said. "They usually return in February or March, and in the past three years, the chicks haven't been mature enough to fly until the middle of July."

Before they will attempt to fly, "they have to know every single feather," Harrison said. "They're always preening, but they're getting to know their feathers and their wings so they can jump out of the nest and know how to fly."

He used to keep a telescope on his front porch to watch the eagles, "but somebody stole it," Harrison said. "Now, I take a folding lawn chair up there every day to see them. People come along, and they sit in my chair and look through the binoculars — it's a real treat."

For him and his wife, however, it's also a constant reminder of Jonah, a talented and prolific painter who started out as a spray-can artist — his ubiquitous tag read "never" — and later became a muralist who painted large panels for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. The organization used the panels as "baffles" to shield neighbors from noise generated by its furniture and mattress factory off Prairie Road.

"Jonah had diabetes, but we didn't realize it for a long time," Harrison said. "He came over one day and complained that his legs were hurting, but he didn't think he needed to go to the doctor. A few days later, he went to sleep and didn't wake up."

Just as he's convinced his son still communes with his parents through the eagles, Harrison now wonders if there's also a tagging connection.

"A couple of months ago, we were driving by some panels on the south side of the Butte where taggers can paint, and somebody had painted 'never' in really beautiful script, with 'Here's to Jonah' in small letters," he said.

"We came back six hours later to take a picture of it, and it already had been painted over. I would really like to know who painted it and if they kept a picture."

The incident "just reminded us again what a huge heart Jonah had and how many people remember him," Harrison said. "Just as he is still watching us, whoever painted that word didn't know that Jonah was up there watching them, too."

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