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The joy of nesting

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Former Borough President Claire Shulman and her husband Mel have been married for decades, but it's a little hard to tell whether their namesake bald eagles at the Queens Zoo share a similar bond. Their avian courtship looks an awful lot like something you'd see on the fifth-grade playground.Claire the eagle is Mel's second wife, as it were. Claire the first died in 2006, and her successor arrived in May. Though Mel is the man of the house, he embodies what it means to be henpecked."Claire's a little territorial," said Queens Zoo Senior Birdkeeper Marcus Garcia. "When Claire arrived, she chased him all around the zoo."Female bald eagles are noticeably larger than the males of the species. Next to Mel, Claire looks like a football player and uses her size accordingly. At several points during the TimesLedger's interview with Garcia she got a gleam in her eye, ducked her head forward and took a run off her perch, wings extended, to rush at Mel, looking an awful lot like Bela Lugosi in "Dracula."Mel sensibly ducked and ran.The eagles in the photos displayed on the zoo's signage are Mel and Claire the first. One shows the pair shoulder to shoulder, a proximity Garcia said indicated affection.Perhaps the issue with the current arrangement is that Mel wasn't ready so soon after losing his first wife to be set up on a permanent blind date?"He might've still been in mourning" for Claire the first when Claire the second arrived, Garcia said.Bald eagles can live into their 30s and mate for life, so for Mel to lose a wife he obviously cared for must have been a blow. And for the zoo to send him a new wife inside of a year, especially one who chases him around their enclosure with wings and beak extended? One can understand his reticence."He's submitting to her, as the male has to do," Garcia said in a voice heavy with meaning.They usually have separate lives, sleeping and eating in different spots in the enclosure, Garcia said."In the mornings she's a little calmer. She'll eat first, and by the end of the day they're like this," he said, gesturing at Mel sitting behind a rock at one end of the enclosure and Claire perched in a prominent spot in the middle for all to see. A spot from which she again hopped down, with a gleam in her eye that meant trouble, spreading her wings as she ran and chased after Mel.With a dynamic like theirs, it is hard to imagine them sharing a candlelit dinner the way their human counterparts, the Shulmans, undoubtedly do.There are two logs where zoo staff place Mel's and Claire's food - fish, rats and other small, meaty things (there's no "I'll just have a salad, thanks" on the eagles' dinner dates) - and even though there are two "plates," Claire eats first and Mel finishes what's left.They sleep at separate ends of the enclosure, too.But the pair has warmed up to each other a bit since Claire the second arrived.The zoo sometimes brings them rabbit or horse meat, which gets tied to a long, thick branch in the middle of the enclosure near the bathing pool, Garcia said. Claire still gets first dibs on the meat, but this definitely sounds like entree sharing. Or it sounds like stealing the peanut butter sandwich of the cute boy at the fifth-grade lunch table.They both have wing injuries - Claire's was severed when she collided with a plane at LaGuardia Airport several years ago, and Mel damaged his when he fell out of a nest that was the equivalent of 50 stories above the ground, Garcia said - and perhaps that has given them something to talk about over dinner. According to federal law, eagles who are able to fly cannot be kept in captivity, Garcia said.And maybe communication will foster some of the other signals of affection Garcia described, such as preening each other."Just the other day they were bathing together," Garcia said. Dirty birds!It seems Mel does have a way with the ladies, duck and run though he might from Claire the second."The female previous to this one did lay eggs, and Mel sat on the nest," Garcia said. Since the eggs turned out to be fertilized - and thus capable of hatching eaglets who could fly - the zoo spirited them away from the pair, took them to an undisclosed location in the wild, and swapped in "dummy" eggs for them to incubate, Garcia said.Whether Mel and this new Claire will have eggs of their own is hard to say. That would require Claire not stealing his lunch and chasing him like a fifth-grader with a crush, perhaps, or Mel deciding he likes his ladies on the bossy, aggressive side.Eagles, like most birds, mate in spring, Garcia said. Perhaps mating season will tell whether they like each other enough to stay together for decades like Mel and Claire Shulman have done.Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at achristodoulides@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Updated 6:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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