Hacking an Eagle's Nest to Save Ourselves
The most effective education doesn’t usually take place in the classroom. Whether you’re a public or private school advocate, charter school supporter, homeschooler, or unschooler, we all recognize that the greatest learning often occurs at the time of extreme need, when facing a real-life problem that needs to be solved.
These high-stake lessons may also take place when we are in the service of helping others.
What follows is a tribute to learning that triumphed in the worst of circumstances.
Hacking is the method used to stimulate Eagle nesting and Eagle population recovery in a particular area by releasing fledgling Eagles into the wild from an artificial nesting tower.
The principle behind Eagle Hacking is that Eagles tend to return to the area from which they were raised and fledged (within approximately 75 miles) after they choose a lifelong mate.
- Eagle Hacking, the American Eagle Foundation
A Tale of Two July Fourths
On July 4, 1999, President Bill Clinton held a ceremony at the White House commending the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) for their work in helping to restore the environment on and around the Anacostia River and reintroducing the bald eagle to that area. Eight years later, DDT had been banned, and the bald eagle was taken off the Endangered Species list. The team at the ECC had successfully introduced many young eaglets to a hacked nest along the river, and the first pair of breeding eagles had made their home in the area right near the Metropolitan Police Station. In 2013, another pair (the ones I have been following) made their home in the National Arboretum and have successfully hatched two sets of eaglets.
In contrast to that turn-of-the-century celebration of our nation and the very symbol that represents it, this Fourth of July was marred by the shooting of a juvenile bald eagle who later had to be euthanized.
The fate of these baby eagles is something my fellow D.C. Eagle Cam followers and I watch very closely and oftentimes, very anxiously. We always learn something.
Working through a Constant State of Grief
What many eagle watchers and others may not be aware of is the story of the team responsible for their return. They may not know how the filmmaker Bob Nixon started working with a group of disadvantaged youths in part to fulfill a promise to Dian Fossey, and that through the process of caring for the river and its inhabitants, he saw them evolve into avid conservationists.
More poignantly still, people may not know that in the first 11 years of the program, nine Core members had succumbed to the violence of the streets of Ward 8, leaving their teammates in a nearly constant state of grief even as they sought to save not only the eagles but themselves. As Nixon said in a 2003 article published in The Washington Post, “When I volunteered to oversee the fledgling national service program in 1992, I did not realize I was also signing up to be a pallbearer.” The ECC would eventually lose 26 members over the period of 25 years, which Nixon attributes to both the violence in and around Ward 8 and illness associated with the poverty so prevalent there.
Nixon and his team at the ECC captured the early years in the film “Endangered Species,” released in 2004. More than a decade later, its lessons still ring true.
As we return to this full work week after what may be this nation’s oddest July 4 ever, the success of that original ECC team and those who followed is more than evident in their restoration efforts and in the positive impact they have made in their neighborhood.
But we have not as a nation escaped the issues they faced, and we are in danger of unlearning the lessons they so bravely learned.
One Mile Southeast of All That
The story of the Earth Conservation Corps is simultaneously cautionary and inspiring. As Twan Woods, the narrator of the film tells us, “We didn’t do it for the fish or birds; we did it because the river was dying and all our friends were being murdered.” Much of this violence was concentrated in D.C.’s Ward 8, one of eight wards and 179 neighborhoods in the commonwealth, and one of its poorest. It sits just about a mile southeast of Ward 2, Twan tell us, where the White House is located.
The Anacostia River takes on the burden of several decades of neglect as well as becoming the life source of not only the returning eagle but the Corps members, their families, and by extension, their community. Woods’s commentary throughout the film guides us through the journey these young people took in banding together to restore the river and themselves. “Back then,” he says at one point, “people thought only the birds and fish needed a clean river. Man, were they wrong.”
In the 15 years since the film was made, the ECC did indeed make an impact on the river, the birds, and those living along the Anacostia.
Walling People off from Nature
The film reminds us of earlier times when the Anacostia was clean and people swam, fished, and were baptized in the river. As the Anacostia fell victim to increasing industrialization, all of that ended, and over time, the community also suffered. And the eagles left.
Julius Lowery talks about growing up on the river, and speaks of the peace and serenity that the river seemed to bring in those days, emphasizing the connection between the access to nature and one’s growing up in a peaceful environment. “The young people today,” he concludes, “would make fewer problems for themselves if the river and the parkland were available to them like it was to me.”
Reiterating this is Brenda Richardson, a community leader and environmentalist with strong ties to the ECC. Richardson cites the state of then boarded up but subsequently razed Valley Greene housing projects as an illustration of people being “walled off from nature.”
”Nature gives communities a sense of connectedness that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” she advises.
The cruelest evidence of the disconnect is the death toll it took on an astounding number of early Corps members. The first was killed in August, 1992, not too long after the start of the project. Monique Johnson was an inspiration to her teammates, and it was her sense of dedication that motivated them to continue their efforts despite the pain of her loss. The first eagle to be named in honor of a fallen Corps member was named after Monique.
As the film progresses, you can’t help but be struck by the pain of each loss and to start seeing the ongoing efforts of the ECC as some epic battle between nature, the evils that man has wrought upon it, and those who seek to save it.
Can there be a winner in such a battle? Can hacking nature have any impact at all?
The Eagles could have warned us
Woods compares the eagles of today to the canaries of the past, endowing them with the ability to warn us of the danger up ahead. Today we face a great many challenges to victories of the recent past, including threats to the environment and our great national monuments, threats to diversity of all kinds, threats to healthcare and the potential loss of millions of lives as a result, and threats to our young people through senseless gun violence.
The work of the ECC expanded over time. They have built parks and walkways, and hosted educational events. Team members have graduated from the program to go on to college through the Americorps scholarship program, earned their GEDs, found jobs, or stayed on, as Woods did, with the ECC.
The spirit of those that were lost lives on not only in the fledging eaglets released over the years but also in the revitalized river and parkland. The ECC has been involved in a number of initiatives, ranging from Anacostia Explorers, which extends the original ECC mission to encompass clean-up, protection, and educational programs; to Guns to Roses, which turns firearms to works of art, and in the process trains participants for work in the construction industry.
On April 25, 2017, the ECC celebrated its 25th anniversary with an eaglet naming ceremony, the name having been chosen in an online contest in which 10,000 people participated. The newest addition to the Police Academy nest was named Spirit; she fledged on June 3, and returned to the nest on June 5, an event that brought together thousands of avid eagle watchers from across the country, online communities of people who may never meet each other but who share a passion for these wonderful creatures.
On May 20, 2017, NPR aired “In Washington, D.C., A Program in Which Birds and People Lift Each Other Up”. The report provides an update on the program and highlights the work of Rodney Stotts, an early ECC participant who went on to become one of only 30 African-American falconers in the U.S. Stotts attributes his time with the ECC with saving his life. “I’d have been dead,” he says in the NPR report. “If I didn't get into animals, I'd have died in the street."
Stotts continues the work of educating young people about raptors through Rodney's Raptors and ongoing work with the ECC.
In the days leading to this July 4, much was made of the rescue of a bald eagle in Washington, D.C., thought to be Justice, the parent eagle of the above-mentioned Spirit. While it was heartwarming to see the nation rally around this now-recovering bird, there is still so much work to be done to ensure their safety and survival, and ours as well.
Is it true that the eagle can help us save ourselves?
This Fourth of July was very different for a nation struggling to right itself in the midst of a great deal of political, social, and economic turbulence. Much of our nation was reflective and poised to continue the fight for the return of . .Justice.
As Woods says, I still think we can learn from eagles. More than that, I think we can learn from the brave members of the ECC, and their ongoing efforts to save the wildlife around them, and in the process, save their communities and themselves.