Have you heard about the Eagles?

That was the earnest question posed to me by Princeton University geology professor Lincoln Hollister, in a tone that suggested whatever I had heard might not be the complete truth. This was several weeks ago and the outline of an answer flashed through my mind like this:

I had indeed heard that the Eagles had just lost to the Giants in overtime and that, while they were headed to the playoffs nevertheless, their ultimate success there would depend on reconstituting their offense with Donovan McNabb returning from a broken ankle. Back many years ago, when I believed that it was not whether you won or lost a game, but by how much you won or lost the game that counted, I would have taken that information, combed the sports pages and the sports bars for the latest information, and concluded that whatever the point spread, I should deduct a few from the Eagles’ side of the equation. A team with a quarterback problem going all the way to the Super Bowl? What are the odds of that happening, I think, as compared to the odds of all the bad things that can happen when a quarterback and his receivers are the least bit off in their timing?

I looked back at Hollister, a Harvard (Class of 1960) and Cal Tech-trained specialist in metamorphic petrology whom I first met when he was waging a valiant (but ultimately unsuccessful) effort to prevent the dismantling of the Princeton University geology museum, and somehow guessed that we were not on the same wave length. So I gave the short answer:

"Yeah, I heard they lost in overtime to the Giants."

"Bald eagles," Hollister replied, oblivious to my answer and obviously answering his own question, "have been sighted above Lake Carnegie, and there’s some thought that they might even be nesting nearby," and at this point he seemed to pause a little, as if to open the mind to all the implications of the next phrase, "possibly at the Sarnoff Center."

Until then I had not heard of the eagles, as opposed to the Eagles, but I soon did. Articles and letters to the editor in the papers trumpeted the return of the bald eagles to central New Jersey. They had been seen in the early morning hours by rowers on Carnegie Lake and by walkers on the Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath.

I was even able to add my own eagle observation to the mix: A year ago the West Windsor-Plainsboro News received a report that an eagle had been sighted and photographed at the Sarnoff campus. But after a flurry of E-mails back and forth information about the photo was never received and the picture was never published.

Now I am not a betting man (if I were I would like the Raiders in the Super Bowl, even if the line gives the Buccaneers a few points), but I will make this prediction: We are sure to hear a lot more about the eagles as the deliberations continue over the proposed Millstone Bypass and its alignment.

Lincoln Hollister, whose great uncle was Lincoln Steffens, the famed muckraker of a century ago, surely will see to that, as will opponents of the bypass, which is configured to slice through a portion of the Sarnoff property and follow the D&R Canal as it carries traffic in and out of Princeton and eliminates as many as three traffic lights on Route 1 (at Washington Road, Fisher Place, and Harrison Street).

The bypass is heading toward some pivotal meetings as the planners prepare the Environmental Impact Statement that will play a large role in determining the exact location and configuration of the bypass — a draft EIS is due in April. Between now and then we may hear more about those bald eagles — the national bird that is found only in North America and that is listed on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s threatened species list. What do you want to do, Princeton: Spend a few minutes every day at the traffic light at Washington Road, or drive a nesting pair of majestic eagles and their fledgling eaglets from their nest in some scrub pine near the towpath or in the Sarnoff woods?

There is only one problem with this moral dilemma. The eagles are not really endangered anymore. Back when they were first listed as endangered, there were only 400 nesting pairs known in the lower 48 states (many more have always nested in Alaska). Today there are reports of nearly 6,000 nesting pairs. In fact, the Wildlife Service proposed that the bald eagle be declared fully recovered in July of 2000 but delayed the decision until the experts decided what kind of management would be required once they were off the list.

So I have heard about the eagles — the Eagles are extinct for this year in the National Football League. The eagles are making a dramatic comeback and the Millstone Bypass is not likely to deter them.

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