A New Niche for Tree Climbers: Banding Eaglets

Ryan Torcicollo, CTSP, is no stranger to climbing, but his latest adventure was an unforgettable experience for him. Based in Essex, Massachusetts, Torcicollo is a safety and skills trainer with SavATree, an accredited, 37-year TCIA member company.

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, known as MassWildlife, needed help with a banding project for eagles, and he jumped at the chance. In turn, we jumped at the chance to talk with him about it.

Man high in a tree wearing an orange helmet standing next to a nest with three baby eagles
Ryan Torcicollo, CTSP, an Essex, Massachusetts-based safety and skills trainer with SavATree, assists the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife with a banding project for eagles.

How did you learn of this opportunity?

“A family member was on a banding project previously and noted that they didn’t have a professional climber. He suggested they contact me, and I agreed to do it.”

Where did this take place?

“The site was on a steep embankment along the Merrimack River in northern Massachusetts. The nest was a bit more than 100 feet up in a white pine next to the river and on the embankment, so climbing was the only way to reach the nest. The tree was 100-plus years old. It was a windy day, with 30-knot gusts that day.”

How old were the hatchlings when you banded them?

“They were five weeks old. There is a very short window of opportunity to do the banding. It needs to be done when the hatchlings are between five and six weeks old. If they are younger than five weeks, the legs are small and the band can move too high up on the leg. This can cut off their circulation. After six weeks, they are more mobile and may jump out of the nest when approached.

“A local woman watches the nest. She contacts MassWildlife to let them know when they have hatched. You can tell how old they are by the development of the pin feathers (new feathers that can look like pins growing out of the skin).”

Man in orange helmet holding a baby eagle
Ryan Torcicollo holds an eaglet prior to banding. All photos courtesy of Ryan Torcicollo.

Did you worry about the parents trying to protect them?

“The parents circle but don’t dive bomb. Sometimes they come down toward you, but they are so big and not at all agile, so they can’t dive. The mom did return and was circling – never out of eyesight. When she got closer, I hid behind some limbs.”

How did the eaglets react when they saw you?

“They were like puppy dogs, all bark and no bite. They hiss but don’t have the coordination to do anything.”

How did you get them down to the ground?

“I put them in a big canvas bag. It’s important to get the talons in first. The hatchlings are little, and their talons are a threat not only to the climber, but also to themselves. Putting them in the bag talons first prevents any injuries.

“Once they’re in the bag, it’s like picking up and lowering a chain saw. There have been times that I’ve been nervous (on the job), like when I was working over someone’s skylight or patio. But this was something else altogether!”

Man in orange helmet holding a baby eagle

How many eaglets were in the nest?

“There were three, which is usually the most there are in a nest at one time. It’s much more common to have two. We did one at a time. Catch it. Lower. Band and test. Bring it back up. Grab another.”

Baby eagles in a nest
The eaglets hiss but don’t have the coordination to do anything, says Torcicollo.

What did the team do once the hatchling reached the ground?

“There was a team of three people: a biologist, a graduate student working on a doctorate and a new hire there to assist. They worked as a team to measure the talons, beak and wingspan. In addition to the banding, they also did a blood draw to test for things like avian flu.”

Team of people banding a bald eagle at five weeks old
Team members band a seemingly docile eaglet.

Torcicollo noted when we spoke in early June that there were two more nests with eggs waiting to hatch, and the volunteers were planning to band those when the hatchlings reached five weeks old.
“This was one of the most interesting, coolest opportunities I’ve had as a tree climber,” says Torcicollo. “This industry and the skill set of climbing trees never ceases to amaze me – where it can take you and what you can do with it.”

Susan DiPietro is managing editor and website editor for TCI Magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to listen highlighted text!