SI Vault
Jim Doherty
August 11, 1980
These bald eaglets in a treetop nest in Michigan wear aluminum I.D. bracelets thanks to a pair of naturalists—a valorous climber and a dedicated biologist—who are very concerned about our national bird
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August 11, 1980

The Eagle Is Banded

These bald eaglets in a treetop nest in Michigan wear aluminum I.D. bracelets thanks to a pair of naturalists—a valorous climber and a dedicated biologist—who are very concerned about our national bird

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A few years ago some experts were ready to write off the great raptor, but somehow it has managed to hang on. Postupalsky believes Michigan's eagles are at least holding their own. Two years ago Holt banded 86 eagles in 81 nests, a bumper crop. This year he banded 73 young birds of 79 that he spotted—not great, but good. Predictably, birds in remote areas are doing better than those near lakes with summer homes. "If we could just manage to leave the poor birds alone, chances are they'd do all right," Postupalsky says. "We've got to recognize that we can't keep building subdivisions on all of these lakes if we want to keep our eagles."

Considering the nature of their work, it might be logical to conclude that Postupalsky and Holt are driven into the wilds each summer by a passionate desire to do good. That's part of it, but it's not the whole story. "All of that conservation note-taking doesn't matter a damn," Holt insists. "I'm not doing this because it's important. I'm doing it because it's fun." Postupalsky, who is accustomed to such heresies from his partner, insists that the "note-taking" matters very much indeed. It's quite likely, however, that if eagles suddenly became as numerous as crows, he would still be out looking for them every summer. The work agrees with him. "Any country that's good enough for eagles and loons is good enough for me," Postupalsky says.

They call themselves "gaboons," a term coined years ago by two Wisconsin ornithologists, Fred and Fran Hamerstrom, to describe graduate students and other lowly apprentices who perform menial research chores. The word has a certain apelike connotation that seems especially appropriate to Holt and his treetop activities. It also lends itself to various other usages. Thus, Postupalsky's battered green van is a "gaboonmobile," idle banter becomes "gaboonage" and the ultimate punishment for carelessness on the job is "gaboonicide."

Postupalsky holds the rank of chief gaboon and Holt is vice-gaboon. The last two summers the first assistant gaboon has been David Powell, a sardonic young man from New Jersey who spent half his time banding raptors in various parts of the country and the other half earning enough money to indulge in his hobby. Another gaboon was Kent Christopher, a freckle-faced graduate of Michigan Tech who drove around with a goshawk in the back of his pickup truck and a frisky English setter in the front.

They're hardly run-of-the-mill bird watchers, these gaboons, but they're fairly typical of raptor nuts, a bizarre substratum of society devoted to the preservation, pursuit and enjoyment of birds of prey. Members of this cult knock about the continent following accipiters, buteos, falcons and owls from their northern breeding ranges to their more southerly wintering grounds, and they gather at such raptor hot spots as Point Pelee in Canada, Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania and Cape May in New Jersey. Some are generalists; others favor a particular bird. There are goshawk fanciers, eagle maniacs and GHO (great horned owl) addicts. The ultimate act of devotion is banding, which entails not only climbing trees to reach young birds but also live-trapping mature birds.

Holt was to this vagabond manner born. He has been following birds around since he started watching barn swallows as a boy on a farm in Massachusetts. He graduated to a fascination with hawks and eventually wandered out to Ohio, where he was astonished at the density of raptors in the Cincinnati area. There he hired on as a park ranger, a job that allowed him full latitude to pursue his banding activities. Holt quit when he was required to work nights. Unlike the owls he so much admires, he cannot sleep during the day. Untutored but well-read, Holt probably has as much field experience with raptors as anyone else alive. He is also an accomplished beer drinker and is always on the lookout for an ice machine when the gaboons arrive in a new town. He is single.

Postupalsky is from Detroit, where he worked as a draftsman for 10 years before switching over to birding full time. Divorced, he lives in Madison, where he does graduate work at the University of Wisconsin's respected Wildlife Ecology Department. He supports his eagle and osprey research in a precarious fashion, piecing together relatively small grants and contracts from conservation groups, private sources, the state of Michigan and other government agencies. Twice each spring Postupalsky checks Michigan's eagle nests in a small plane to map out which pairs have produced young birds. Then, starting a couple of months before the eaglets fledge, he and his fellow gaboons begin their arduous trek.

Eagle banding didn't start with Postupalsky and Holt. It was done on a limited basis in Michigan by private individuals back in the 1920s. During the 1940s and '50s, a retired banker named Charles L. Broley used a rope ladder to reach and band young eagles in the Florida Everglades. It was Broley who helped blow the whistle on DDT when he detected a devastating drop-off in eagle reproduction. In the 1960s U.S. Wildlife biologist John Mathiesen and climber Jack Stewart kept an eye on the 100 or so eagle nests in Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest, and Chuck Sindelar of the Department of Natural Resources is banding eagles in northern Wisconsin today. Furthermore, the National Wildlife Federation has been keeping track of eagles in the Chesapeake Bay area for years, and it recently began a midwinter bald eagle survey of the entire U.S. No one, though, has developed better data on bald eagles in as large an area over a longer period of time than Postupalsky.

During their years together, Postupalsky and Holt have had more than their share of what they wryly refer to as "fiascoes." They have been lost, marooned, stuck in the mud and stuck in the sand. They have spent countless hours looking for "jumpers"—young eagles that panic and jump out of the nest when Holt arrives. These must be found and carried back up to the nest because adult eagles can't maneuver down into the cramped understory of the forest to feed them.

Early in their first banding season together, the pair got stuck in the woods and had to spend the night in Postupalsky's old Nash. Holt, who tends to be a little jumpy despite his phlegmatic demeanor, couldn't sleep. Postupalsky, who tends to be somewhat mercurial, was annoyed because each time he started to doze off, Holt would roll over or smash a mosquito against the car window or crawl out of the car and shut the door. Finally, Postupalsky could endure no more. Deep in the wilds of Michigan, he erupted. It was, Holt recalls, quite noisy. "He almost committed gaboonicide that night," he says.

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