Kyle McCarty, an eagle biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, was 40 feet up a sycamore tree in the Tonto National Forest trying to gain control of a pair of young bald eagles.
It would not be easy.
Twigs snapped, and the branches holding the nest began to sway.
“There you go, there you go,” McCarty said. “You’re a fighter. Good for you. There you go.”
The nestlings’ parents soared overhead, squawking and displeased.
After placing leather hoods over their heads, and covering their talons with booties, McCarty placed the 6-week-old birds in a bag and lowered them to biologists waiting below.
What happened on Thursday, the first and almost certainly the last time these animals will ever be touched by human hands, would help determine their future.
The desert-nesting bald eagles of central Arizona are the only bald eagles still receiving protection as members of the Endangered Species List.
Getting and keeping that protection has not been easy.
In 1967, the bald eagle was listed as endangered under federal law.
After four decades of habitat protection and hunting prohibitions, the eagle was thriving.
In July 2007, eagles in the lower 48 states were removed from the federal protection list. But environmentalists in Arizona were not ready to let those protections lapse.
The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, and Maricopa Audubon filed a petition in federal court arguing that the desert-nesting bald eagle – sometimes called the bald eagle of the Sonoran Desert – should still be protected.
These birds, they argued, were not just any bald eagles but a distinct group.
In March 2008, the U.S. District Court in Arizona agreed with the conservationists and designated the animals as a “distinct population segment.” That means the birds, though they are the same species, are geographically, biologically and behaviorally distinct from all other bald-eagle populations.
That status gave the eagles, which live south of the Mogollon Rim and north of the Arizona/Mexico border, a protected position under the Endangered Species Act.
But the eagles’ travels through the court system are still not finished.
The judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to perform a status review of the eagles to determine whether they deserve the special protection.
Under the order, the birds cannot be removed from the list until a finding is made.
The information gathered on Thursday by Arizona Game and Fish will be part of that research.
After lowering the birds to the ground, McCarty stayed in the nest, gathering information on their diet.
There was a skunk tail, some duck remains, fish bones and rabbit fur.
The diversity of the diet was a good indication that these are healthy birds.
On the ground, Kenneth Jacobson, head of the bald-eagle management program for Game and Fish, started to measure the birds and place metal bands on their legs.
Each was a male, and each weighed about 6 pounds, 13 ounces.
The birds will not have the distinctive white feathers on their heads and tails until they are about 5 years old.
During the measuring and weighing, the hoods kept the animals calm and docile. They appeared to be in an almost trancelike state.
“The brains are pretty much run by their optic nerves,” Jacobson said. “You shut off the lights, he pretty much shuts down.”
The metal band markings, 23/U for the first and 23/V for the second, will identify the eagles. Scientists with high-powered lenses will track their movement in the years ahead.
Arizona Game and Fish will share this information with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The position of the state agency is that desert-nesting bald eagle deserves special protection.
There are just 50 breeding pairs of the eagles in the state.
“We do believe it deserves distinct population segment,” Jacobsen said. “It does deserve special protection. It’s such a magnificent bird.”