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Alma Mater of the National Bird

  • Watts and Eagle Research
    Watts and Eagle Research
    Bryan Watts, research professor and current director of W&M's Center for Conservation Biology, has his hands full cradling this female eagle and running the boat. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

Seeing a bald eagle is a thrill that never wears thin and some of the best places on the East Coast to see our national bird are within a few minutes drive of William and Mary's campus.

You can regularly see bald eagles high above campus, but you can get a closer look the Colonial Parkway between Jamestown and Yorktown. Eagles nest on Jamestown Island and they're a common sight from the meadows and beaches along the James River. If you walk on the beach and pick up a fish skeleton, it’s probably the remains of an eagle meal.

It's poetic justice to have bald eagles so accessible to us, since two of our researchers have deserved a lot of the credit for the comeback story of the bald eagle. Mitchell Byrd and Bryan Watts of William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology have documented the return of the bald eagle in the Chesapeake Bay region from near-zero numbers to the point where there were enough of them for the species to be removed from the federal endangered species list in summer of 2007.

Each year, the Center for Conservation Biology conducts census flights during nesting season over the shoreline of the Chesapeake and its major tributaries. Quite often, it's Byrd and/or Watts climbing into the cockpit of a Cessna 172 operated by a former fighter pilot known as Captain Fuzzzo—spelled with three z's. The middle z, he says, is silent.

The Endangered Species Act allowed for eagle nesting areas to be protected from development. The Center for Conservation Biology's flights pinpointed the areas — even the individual trees — which needed to be protected. For their contribution to the eagle's comeback, Byrd and Watts received National Recovery Champion awards from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The story of the eagle is not over. Removal of the birds from the endangered species has opened up lots of prime real estate that once only eagles could call home, but other regulations continue to protect nest trees.

Something must be working, because the nearby James River is nearly saturated with breeding eagles. There are so many eagles, in fact, that the CCB has become eagle sociologists—witnessing instances of conflicts such as nest intrusions. They have even seen evidence of eagle threesomes, deadbeat dads and cheating wives among these all-American birds.