One of the densest populations of American bald eagles in the United States resides off the eastern shore of Lake Tohopekaliga in St. Cloud, and the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) is looking to make sure that the birds are safe.
Thousands of utility poles in the area keep the electric grid running smoothly but could prove deadly to the eagles and other birds with large wingspans that perch on them or get tangled in the powerlines.
“There are 24,000 poles in the St. Cloud service territory where a high density of bald eagles lives,” said Dustin Catrett, OUC’s Senior Environmental Compliance Specialist. “So, it’s incumbent on us to try to mitigate the probability of unfortunate events occurring.”
To protect the birds, and to prevent them from causing power outages, OUC plans to retrofit about 150 poles this year with a protective covering over the electrical points that would be dangerous to birds. The process of putting all of the retrofitted poles up takes about six months, and each installation takes between 10-30 minutes to install.
“[The retrofits] will allow eagles to land on these structures and not be electrocuted; [the eagles] will use them as a perch,” Catrett said. “So, instead of trying to discourage them away from the poles, to other poles that may not have the protection, now they can land in these high risk areas that we’ve established and be safe.”
Less than two eagles are killed due to contact with power lines a year, according to OUC. Each time an eagle is electrocuted, OUC reofits every pole in a quarter-mile radius with a protective cover.
According to Catrett, a survey conducted eight years ago found that the St. Cloud area had the third-highest population of bald eagles in the country at that time. The OUC created a protection plan that “covers all aspects of bird. It’s regulated under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and, specifically for the eagles, we follow the Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act.”
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 makes it illegal, without a waiver, to kill or capture bird species listed as “migratory.” The Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act is a 1940 federal statute that protects the titular species of eagle.
Once abundant in North America, the bald eagle’s numbers began to decline in the mid-1900s, and in 1978, they were added to the Endangered Species Act. By 2007, the wild population stabilized, and the national bird was taken off the endangered species list. Now, according to the International Union of Conservation of Nature, the American Bald Eagle is of “least concern.”
Greg Forcey is an ornithologist and a principal scientist with Normandeau Environmental Consultants. He worked with Catrett to develop OUC’s Avian Protection Plan and provided insight on why the eagles might be attracted to the utility poles. “Compared with a tree, a pole gives them better views for hunting,” Forcey said. “It’s just a very convenient place to perch.”
The OUC Avian Protection Plan includes a guide for identifying different bird species, how to handle injured or dead birds, and managing or improving nests. OUC provides nesting sites by installing large, dish-shaped platforms on their power line structures. Other birds, besides the bald eagle, could be helped, such as the red-tailed hawk or the osprey, which, according to Catrett, can build nests made of dirt and branches that can weigh as much as 100 pounds.
With the implementation of their protection plan and their retrofitted poles, the OUC is hoping that they can play a part in preserving St. Cloud’s bald eagle population for years to come.
“As long as there are overhead power lines, there will be birds landing on them,” Catrett said. “So, we have to take precautions to safeguard them as well as ensure the reliability of power to our customers.”