The Lady Who Lived in an Eagle’s Nest

Once nearly extinct, American bald eagle populations are soaring — thanks to environmentalists and bird lovers like Doris Mager.


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Bulging out from between the upper branches of a loblolly pine, a large finger-lapped arrangement of sticks formed the familiar aesthetic of an industrious eagle couple. For some unknown reason, the pair had not returned for the 1979 nesting season.

Staring up, Doris Mager was aware of the centrality of nests in the lives of bald eagles. Those compositions of meticulous labor, enigmas of intricacy and strength that marry art with utility, are essential to the renewal of life. The identity of few birds is as closely attached to their nests as the bald eagle’s is to its aerie. None in North America build larger or stouter ones. The balds’ are emblematic of their species’ resilience. Nests had been a key variable in determining the population’s decline, and they would be imperative to its revival. Without them, Mager knew, there would be no birds.

Mager was also aware of the violent spontaneous weather that frequented Central Florida, and at that moment, dark clouds filled the sky to the west. Standing at the foot of the loblolly, one hand hesitantly on a climbing ladder hanging down from the height of a fire lookout tower, she was intent on spending time in the nativity of the former occupants.

Mager had never scaled a tree before, much less in a storm. She reached over and touched an ominous-looking lightning scar running down the tree’s trunk to the ground. Pushing ahead of the storm, the wind pulsed, and the green needles trembled in the branches high above. One eyewitness described the tree as “spindly.” Another called it “wind-whipped.” Jeff Klinkenberg, the outdoor editor for the St. Petersburg Times, is the one who used the word spindly. “Here she was,” he reflected decades later, “53 years old and climbing a ladder I would not have dared to climb at my age then, 30.”

Before putting herself at the mercy of the swelling wind, Mager tied a red bandanna around her head of silver hair, which she had cut and styled in a new hairdo for the occasion. Owl earrings dangled beside her cheeks, and, retaining the raptor theme, a spread-eagle necklace wreathed her neck. She wore black jeans, a denim shirt, and gray running shoes. Yet her jogging routine had been inconsistent of late. In relating that detail, she confessed to Klinkenberg, “I’ve got fat little legs, and I probably shouldn’t be that far off the ground at my age.” She slipped into a safety harness secured to an upper branch. Alongside the harness line, the grounding cable of a lightning rod chased down the side of the tree. A number of precautions were taken that day, and Mager added one of her own by swallowing a motion sickness pill. “I get airsick and I get seasick,” she again confessed to Klinkenberg, “and I’m probably going to get nest sick.”

Mager put one foot up on a lower rung and followed that with the other on the next rung. Grabbing a third at eye level with both hands, she stared nervously into the tree’s rust-colored scaly bark and coaxed herself toward a 50-foot summit. Whenever the wind kicked up, the tree creaked like an old door. When it swung like one, she would pause, grip the ladder tighter, and take a deep breath. She shouted to a friend below, “Get down on your knees and pray, Viola!”

When she got to the first branch, she dismounted the ladder and stepped into the loblolly’s outspreading crown. Still ten feet below her objective, she used the hoisting rope to pull herself up and over into the nest. She caught her breath and looked out across the distance, over the sprawl of the russet and green pine barren, out toward the faraway silence of wetlands and the shimmering silver light reflecting off Lake Harney, the fishing hole of the previous tenants. The storm in the west was moving to the north of her, and she hollered to a crowd that had gathered around the base of the tree, “You don’t know what you’re missing! It’s gorgeous up here!”

Staging a nest-in: In 1979, Mager spent a week in an unoccupied aerie to call attention to the
plight of the bald eagle. (© Orlando Sentinel)

Mager was planning to “live” in the tree for six days and six nights. She explained to a reporter, “I always wanted to sleep overnight in a nest.” She was interested in knowing the eagles’ residence firsthand, seeing what they saw, experiencing the motion of the tree they experienced, feeling the touch of the sun they felt, listening to the pitch of the wind through the woodland canopy and the stick nest.

Mager wasn’t there merely to take a joyride in a swaying tree. She was a vice president at the Florida Audubon Society, overseeing raptor research and rehabilitation. A donor had recently provided the start-up capital for the construction of an aviary at the group’s headquarters. It was a good sum of money but not enough. Mager then announced plans to stage her “nest-in,” as some were calling it, to bring attention to the plight of the bald eagle.

For decades commercial fishers had proclaimed eagles as nuisance wildlife that were stealing fish and biting into profits. They shot, netted, and clubbed their supposed competition. It didn’t matter that this so-called nuisance bird was a symbol of America.

Klinkenberg said that Mager was “funny and quotable” yet also “heroic.” Divorced and the mother of a grown son, Billy, she had devoted the previous 17 years to rescuing and rehabilitating injured and orphaned raptors. She had no formal science background and came by her education and work on her own. When she was in her 20s and living in Haddam, Connecticut, she was a victim of the “old wives’ tale,” as she put it, that eagles were known to abduct babies. A nesting couple that fished on the nearby Salmon River frequently flew over her yard and Billy’s sunning bassinet. That’s when Mager learned to recognize the call of an eagle and to run outside at the sound of it. “Don’t you come down here,” she would say. “I like you very much. You just keep going.” She soon learned that her fears were unwarranted, that eagles were not the birds of storybook tales.

After moving to Florida in the early 1950s, Mager began working at the gift shop of Florida Audubon in an old farmhouse outside Orlando. In 1963, when fewer eagles were nesting around the country than ever before, someone walked into the gift shop holding a red-tailed hawk with an infected foot. Mager didn’t know how to help the bird and was reluctant to try, but she took it home. She fed and watered it and soaked its foot, recalling what her father used to say: “Use common sense and Epsom salt for everything.” Once the hawk was healthy again, she released it.

That’s how raptor rehabilitation was in those days: improvisational or nonexistent. Once word got around that the woman at the Audubon gift shop knew how to restore the health of birds of prey, more people brought in injured hawks and owls. Mager called on an ornithologist who oversaw a raptor rehabilitation program on the Gulf coast for guidance on caring for birds, and she took to her new endeavor like talons on a wholesome speckled trout. Injured birds she kept at her house, and those that recovered yet remained flightless for a bad wing or lost eye she took to the store to help promote the cause of raptors.

At one time she had as many as seven balds living in her backyard. Mager and Florida Audubon decided that a facility equipped and designed to revitalize the rescues would be more appropriate, and they would need to raise money to build it.

Home and away: Mager has had as many as seven bald eagles living and rehabilitating in her backyard. (Department of Archives and Special Collections, Olin Library, Rollins College)

The nest Mager was now sitting in was located near Oviedo, an old citrus town known for its curious demographic of street-roaming chickens — of which, on occasion, one or two likely were lost to local bald eagles. Mager knew all the nests in Central Florida, and she chose this one because, although abandoned, it remained sturdy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assented to her nest-in on the condition that if eagles began hovering about, she and her entourage would evacuate immediately. Mager wanted to give the event a patriotic theme appropriate to the American bird, so she made her ascent on Flag Day, June 14, and flew the Stars and Stripes from the side of her perch.

Mager’s publicized plans brought some 100 people out for her climb, turning off State Road 419 and driving a mile down a sun-scorched sandy road through open pine and scrubland. The usual faithful Audubon members were there, along with journalists, television film crews, and general spectators, a good many of whom had never seen a bald eagle in the wild.

Mager had a support crew with her too, though housed in the slightly snugger, stale-air quarters of a trailer. Helpers had rigged up a pulley system to send food and water up to her. In return, she would periodically send down a Maxwell House coffee can repurposed as a chamber pot. Someone brought her a steak with mushrooms one day, and the ice cream man came with a treat every day. On some evenings, there was live music and dancing down below, as well as pizza parties, when dinner came to her by the slice.

The dinner leftovers of the previous residents — fish heads and animal carcasses rotting in the plait of sticks and moss — didn’t bother her. She was protected, she said, by a “bad smeller.” She was also equipped with a walkie-talkie and a makeup kit. Clean clothes were sent up daily. Blankets and a pillow were hoisted at night, to go atop the patio-lounge cushion used as a mattress, all easily held by the nest’s six-foot expanse. “I can stretch out from north to south,” she cheerfully told a reporter, “and still have a good foot or foot and a half left over.” She wasn’t lounging around, though. She wrote thank-you cards to donors and tried to finish up that year’s nest survey for the state.

News and photos of Mager and the nest-in ran on television and in newspapers across the country. Life magazine printed a full-page color photograph of her waving topside. She was in bare feet and a pink shirt, wearing Jackie O. sunglasses and her owl earrings and eagle necklace. The iconic “Hello, Americans” radio personality Paul Harvey did a segment on his nationally syndicated Paul Harvey News, which reached upward of 20 million listeners. Supporters and curious people came out to see the “Eagle Lady,” as the press dubbed her. One day, a girl barked through a bullhorn, “Do you like it up there?” Mager shouted back, “Honey, I love it.” How could she not? She would wake each morning to watch the ground fog dissipate as the sun rose, and she thought she was in heaven.

As planned, Mager descended the tree on June 20, the 197th anniversary of the Great Seal of the United States. Flapping her arms like an eagle, she admitted that she was a bit of a “nut.” The nest-in raised over $6,000, and donations kept arriving in the mail. Florida Audubon met its fundraising goals, built the new aviary and education center, and opened it in October of that year. It was the first of its kind in Central Florida, adding another to the handful around the country, which would quickly double in number, and soon after that double again.

Mager was among many who created a welcoming and healthy environment to enable the bald eagle to flourish once again across the continent.


Excerpted from The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird by Jack E. Davis. Copyright © 2022 by Jack E. Davis. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jack E. Davis — a professor of environmental history at the University of Florida — is the author of the award-winning book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea

From the Archives

Fourth of July Eagle by Charles Livingston Bull, The Saturday Evening Post, July 3, 1909

America’s Symbol

The bald eagle once ranged throughout every state in the Union except Hawaii. When America adopted the bird as its national symbol in 1782, as many as 100,000 nesting bald eagles lived in the contiguous United States. By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs were found in the lower 48.

In 1917, in response to claims that the bald eagle was a threat to some livelihoods — claims later discredited — the Alaska Territorial Legislature sponsored a bounty of 50 cents — later increased to $2 — for each pair of eagle talons that were turned in. That led to the death of more than 125,000 birds. The Post editorial board spoke out on the issue.

Call for Repeal

In our zeal to be all things to all men, we Americans have undertaken to exterminate the American eagle, for that it has proved itself displeasing to certain of our citizens in a limited portion of the republic.

This continent is the habitat of the American eagle. We found him here when we came, and avid of liberty and freedom as we then were, so much did the wild, free, and bold life of this creature appeal to us that we chose him as our emblem. We have put the eagle on our coinage; called the eagle our Bird of Freedom; made name and phrase alike known wherever this republic is known. There is not a citizen in this republic who does not know that the eagle is our home bird. We ought to hold him sacred, and not only to defend his name but to protect his fleshly form in every honorable way.

Along the Alaska coast eagles always have abounded, living on fish and game, such small animals as they could find — as they always have done, from time immemorial. Within the last double decade a few men have undertaken fox farming on some of the Alaska islands, [raising] the species known as the blue fox. It being the instinct of the eagle to live on its own wild meat, eagles have carried off an occasional young fox, as they have an occasional young lamb, an occasional grouse, many rabbits, and the like.

The fox farmers having made due wail about their enterprises, a member of Congress was found willing to relieve their distress, and the eagle was removed from the lists of protected goods. As a result Alaska put a bounty of 50 cents a head on the American eagle. At this writing some 6,000 have been killed. It hardly need be said that the whole species will be wiped out if possible.

There are many large things to occupy the minds of most of us in these times, but this is something which sticks in our mind. Too often some specific situation asks for some general remedy — a thing illogical of itself. We do not recall one successful or desirable attempt on the part of man — even that manner of superman who goes to Congress — to run the affairs of Nature better than for quite some time has been done by Almighty God. We cannot imagine a more ghastly attempt at that sort of thing than this bounty on the American eagle, which seems to us the absolute limit of this manner of hysteria. It is not only a wrong thing and an indefensible thing, but a foolish thing.

Alaska’s bounty on eagles should be repealed at once. It should, by United States statute, be made an offense to kill an American eagle. If this republic is to die with a dollar in its hand, let us at least see that the dollar itself be not made a mockery.

—“The American Eagle,” Editorial,
April 24, 1920

Crass Idiocy

You may have seen — provided you have had the opportunity of seeing any sort of silver coin of late — the image of the bird of freedom which decorates our more solid currency. The American eagle is our bird. He stands for us all over the world. You would think, would you not, that he at least would be spared the danger of extinction?

The establishment of a bounty for the killing of this species is one of the crassest pieces of idiocy on record in these days when crass idiocy so much abounds and flourishes.

—“Our National Emblem,”
Editorial, January 3, 1920

A Waste of Life

Let me renew the previous adjuration to do what you can to stop the slaughter of American eagles along the Alaska coast. By reason of the government bounty offer 5,100 eagles were killed in 18 months. This is an absolutely unnecessary waste of life.

Eagles have killed some of the young foxes on one or two fox preserves on Alaska islands, though they have never destroyed the wild foxes of Alaska in all the centuries they have lived together.

Eagles do kill a few salmon and eat a few that are found dead, but in no wise do they imperil any salmon fishery. They may kill rabbits now and again, but in no sense have they been destroyers of wild game. For the most part they hang along the coast and live on fish life. A dead whale lasts them a long while.

There is no reason on earth why these bald eagles — of that species which we have been proud to call the bird of freedom, of that species which we have put on our coinage and our seal — should be destroyed under a bounty offered by any branch of the American government.

—“The Killing of Eagles,”
Editorial, March 20, 1920

This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. When we violate nature & all its splendor, we defile the hand of The Great Artist, named God ! Love his work, his masterpieces..from a distance !

  2. I am so happy the bald eagle is now protected. What a horrible waste of life that is; having these majestic birds go up against man’s weapons and folly

  3. This beautiful article touched my heart. In My hometown, Johnstown,PA… we have 2 nests ‼️ I am so excited …. Saw two separate eagles hovering at each nest . What a thrill ‼️


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