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Chickens Help Hatch Eggs for Endangered Eagles

May 17, 1987

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Chickens have been conscripted into the battle against extinction of the American bald eagle, hatching healthy eaglets with more success than incubators.

In a 3-year-old federal program, about a dozen cochin bantam chickens have been setting on fragile eagle eggs in a climate-controlled coop at the U.S. Interior Department’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, about 20 miles south of Baltimore.

The center, which also uses chickens to incubate eggs of endangered whooping cranes and Mississippi sandhill cranes, has released about 30 chicken-incubated eagles into the wild.

One of those birds released in Georgia recently has bred successfully, the first to do so since the program started in 1984.

″We’re hoping to (increase the bald eagle population) but the jury is still out″ on the program’s success, said Rod Gable, aviculturist for the center’s endangered species program and operator of the incubator program, believed to be the first of its kind for eagles.

Scientists attribute the chickens’ success to their smaller size, which is easier on fragile eggs, and to the fouls’ unique distribution of heat unmatchable by an incubator, Gable said.

Chickens were first used to incubate eggs of endangered peregrine falcons, which ate pesticide-laden food that left egg shells extremely thin and fragile. Scientists at the Patuxent center faced the same problem with bald eagles. They also wanted to incubate eggs away from the mother so the endangered bald eagles would continue to lay eggs and increase their numbers.

Gable said only 60 percent of articially incubated eggs bear live birds.

But the chickens hatched 93 percent of eagle eggs successfully the first year and about 80 percent yearly since then, about the same rate as the eagles themselves, he said.

The eagle eggs, about the size of very large chicken eggs, are removed from under the chicken to an incubator a few days before hatching.

About a third of the eaglets are placed in the wild with adult eagles that do not have chicks. The rest remain in captivity at the center until they can be released, Gable said.

″We are sort of an adoption agency for eagles,″ Gable said, adding that eagle chicks this year will be placed in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee and Georgia.

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