By Stephen McKinley
Where do eagles dare?
For now, though, daring to fly is about as much as Inwood’s eagles, New York’s newest newcomers, can manage.
The four bald eagle fledglings, brought to Inwood Hill Park from Wisconsin in June, have an accomplished babysitter: Irish-American falconer Thomas Cullen.
“When they’re at this stage, they do dumb things,” said Cullen of his feathered friends, while peering through a telescope at the Inwood Hill Park nature center at one of the eagles in the distant trees.
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The telescope is only one of an array of devices that Cullen, a falconer since his childhood, and veteran of the New York City Parks Department, has called into service to help him monitor the fledglings.
“The second female finally decided to come off the platform that we built for them,” he explained. “First she landed on a nice branch, and a red tailed hawk knocked her off. Once they fall through the canopy [of the trees], they can get into real trouble.”
Last week, one of Cullen’s eagles landed on a thin branch, and swung upside down. She hung there like a bat for about 20 minutes, said Cullen, grinning, before she figured out how to get out of the predicament: she let go and fell, and then started to glide.
First news of the eagles’ arrival in Manhattan broke in June, when Inwood locals found a section of their park fenced off with signs proclaiming, “Endangered species: property under 24-hour surveillance.”
It was several months before, in April, that James Gill, chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, came up with the idea to bring the quintessential American symbol, the bald eagle, to Manhattan.
“You can’t believe the hoops that had to be jumped on this one,” Cullen said. “If anyone had actually stopped and thought about this for more than 10 minutes, they might have changed their minds.”
Originally, it was hoped that the eagles might be released from captivity in Battery Park City, so that they might soar defiantly over Ground Zero.
That, said Cullen, was doable, even though it sounded highly unusual.
“When I was surveying sites for the eagles for the Parks Department, I came to Inwood Hill Park first, and said, ‘This is it.’ I was so stunned at this park still being in Manhattan.”
Inwood Hill Park lies to the east of Inwood, once one of the strongest Irish neighborhoods in New York. Along with nearby Fort Tryon Park, the area comprises 200 acres of wood and parkland.
A short stroll from the last stop on the A train takes one into a paradise of trees, squirrels and cardinals. Manhattan seems far away — yet it is right beneath one’s feet. There are majestic views of the Harlem River and the Bronx, but only if you find a gap in the trees.
Inwood Hill Park contains what is considered some of the original old-growth woodland that covered Manhattan island before Europeans arrived in the 16th century.
The park contains a poignant memorial to the spot where Dutch governor Peter Minuit is reputed to have bought Manhattan from some of the local native Indian population for the equivalent of about $26.
“I have been told Indians lived in the caves in Inwood Hill Park until as late as the 1950s,” said Cullen, shaking his head in amazement.
The park’s newest residents, the bald eagles, are not as farfetched an addition as some locals have complained.
“We have leapfrogged them into Manhattan,” Cullen said. “The bald eagle population has been expanding in recent years, and they have already reached about one hundred miles from New York, around Kruger’s Island on the Hudson.”
“We have plugged ourselves into the natural course of their development. We take them out and put them in an enclosure like this,” Cullen said, pointing to the lofty platform up in the highest point of the forest. From his telescope, it was possible to see one of the eagles, sitting hunched on a perch, taking in its new surroundings.
Cullen can also view the birds with a television camera so powerful that he can focus in on the fish that the eagles prefer to eat.
That, he said, is nothing compared with the birds’ eyesight.
“They have nine times the clarity of vision that we humans have,” he said, his own eyes bright with enthusiasm for the birds of prey. “We consider perfect human vision to be 20:20 vision. Now, if eagles had 20:20 vision, all humans would be considered legally blind.”
With such keen eyesight, it will not be long until these natural hunters start to hunt.
This has been one of the concerns locals have put to Cullen and his Parks Department colleagues.
“There is an incredible community here,” said Cullen, who hails from Goshen, N.Y., and lives there now, after spending time in other parts of the U.S. and Europe. His family hails from Wexford, he said, although several generations ago.
“I’ve had 60- and 70-year-old men come up to me and tell me about hunting for jackrabbits here when they were 6 or 7,” Cullen said. “There was one old German man in the 1940s who used to take kids on nature walks, and at least 10 people have told me that their love of nature and this park, came from him.”
An older man was worried that the eagles would devour other woodland creatures — the birds, though fond of fish, Cullen said, are opportunists and will eat almost any meat they can hunt and kill.
“He told me that he’d just seen a black-capped heron grabbing a day-old duckling, and it was bashing it on a rock, before eating it, and he was all taken with ‘the horror, the drama,'” he said, laughing.
The problem of food had been solved the very same morning — Cullen had just taken a call on his cell phone, and received the news that a permit had been granted to allow the Parks Department to create a fish pen in a little inlet that is part of the Harlem River.
“This park is almost a horseshoe around an inlet,” said Cullen.
He shook his head, dismayed that so much of his work is taken up with bureaucracy. Falconry, he pointed out, is more highly regulated than handguns.
Will the eagles need coaxing to go hunting? Cullen was asked.
“They can see a fish pen like the one we’ll build from as much as a mile and a half away. The great thing is, they’re preprogrammed. The software is all there. They are one of the world’s greatest hunters.”
Cullen himself seems to have been preprogrammed with a love of ornithology. He explained that he was crazy about birds, especially birds of prey, from a very early age.
“Actually, it was a Disney movie,” he said, smiling at the recollection. ” ‘Rusty and his Falcon.’ It would be actually very politically incorrect today. A boy finds and injured falcon and helps it, and then goes hunting with it.”
In today’s world, Cullen explained, such invasive practices are “a big no-no. [The movie] basically encourages kids to go out and scoop up wildlife.”
“I ended up going to England to go to school,” Cullen continued. Providentially for the budding young falconer, an Englishman called Philip Glasier, regarded as one of the world’s greatest experts on birds of prey, had opened the world’s first falconry centers in Gloucestershire, England.
Cullen worked with Glasier for several years, and gained what he felt was invaluable experience, far above any he might have found elsewhere in the world.
Cullen’s love of birds led him into many interesting adventures. In the 1990s, he was asked to help construct a bird abatement program for JFK airport, where falcons were used to chase flocks of birds away from airplanes. The bald eagle program in Inwood, he believes, is a chance to make a significant difference in the lives of all New Yorkers.
“We’d love to expose New Yorkers to not just the notorious species like bald eagles, but to things like jumping mice and butterflies,” Cullen said. “It is reckoned that thanks to humans, the world loses one species every six seconds. Because we sprayed for West Nile Virus, observers have seen certain types of butterflies dramatically decrease. Bald eagles are only one part of the ladder of species in the city.”
“People have to consider,” he continued quietly, but passionately, “is this still a park, if the only mammal left in it is a rat? One reason for bringing in the eagles is that they will be an excellent barometer of the health of the park. The eagles will not stay here if the system cannot support them.”
For example, the visually stunning eagles could not survive without the maggots that were eating the remnants of rotting food that they have discarded.
“The eagles have done so much to heighten awareness already,” said Cullen, by now taking a stroll to examine the platform and clearing that he and a team of Parks Department workers constructed for the birds, in a marathon five days in June.
Suddenly, up above the canopy of leaves, one of the eagles appeared, circling slowly on its massive wingspan. Still youngsters, they will eventually achieve a span of as much as eight feet.
The bird turned effortlessly, its wings translucent against the clear blue sky.
Cullen stood and looked up, transfixed.
“This is what it’s all about,” he said.