By George Barnes, Telegram & Gazette
GRAFTON, Mass. — Dianne Benson Davis had already helped raise polar bears and hunted with a red-tailed hawk, but living at the Quabbin Reservoir with eight baby bald eagles brought her about as close to nature as anyone could hope for.
“Eagle One: Raising Bald Eagles — a Wildlife Memoir” tells of a life spent caring for wildlife and educating people about the birds and mammals that are part of the world they live in. Published by Chandler House Press, the book draws on journals kept and letters Davis sent home to her parents, to tell the story of her life-changing summer of 1985 working with the highly successful Massachusetts Eagle Restoration Project. It includes sections of the journals and many photographs of the project, as well as other projects Davis has been involved in during her career.
Living in a tent trailer at the Quabbin Reservoir for four months in an area off-limits to most humans, Davis cared for eight eagle chicks that had been transplanted from Nova Scotia, in the hope they would make Massachusetts their home.
The eagle project, which lasted from 1982 to 1988, would result in the first successful Massachusetts nesting of bald eagles since 1906. Because of the success of the project, the number of nesting pairs in Massachusetts has gone from the first two in 1989 to 35 in 2012.
Davis said the inspiration she found working there and with others who made the miracle happen carried on in her later work at Tufts Veterinary Hospital, the EcoTarium and as natural history guide for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
“I always hope to inspire a passion for science and nature,” she said. “You never know where you are going to pick up something that is going to stick with you for the rest of your life.”
For Davis, the moment was a visit by a Massachusetts Audubon Society volunteer to her elementary school classroom. By the time she was in high school, she was a volunteer at the EcoTarium in Worcester. After high school she became a zoo keeper for the EcoTarium, working with two polar bear cubs born there. Her work with the polar bears and other wildlife at the EcoTarium led to her becoming a wildlife rehabilitator and falconer. For 20 years she worked with a red-tailed hawk, training and hunting with it.
In 1982 Jack Swedberg, who had been observing and photographing wintering bald eagles at the Quabbin Reservoir for a decade, was given approval to begin a program aimed at the restoration of nesting eagle populations in the state. Davis was involved with the early planning of the project but turned down a job in 1982 because she was pregnant. In 1984 she was offered another job working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service efforts to hatch the first peregrine falcons in downtown Boston. She again turned the job down because she had a young daughter at home.
It was in a visit to the Eagle Project later in 1984 that she received a third offer to work with raptor restoration efforts. This time she took the job, replacing UMass graduate student Dave Nelson, who cared for eagles the previous three years. The birds lived in a 40-foot-tall tower on the shore of the reservoir with cages for eight eagles.
During the four months at the Quabbin Reservoir, Davis said she fished every day to feed the eagles, which received 20 pounds of fish twice a day, along with vitamins. She caught the fish with gill nets, cut the fish up into bite-size pieces and fed the birds through chutes into their cages to avoid human contact. The plan was to raise healthy birds while giving them the chance to imprint on their surroundings. The hope, which proved successful, was that the birds would return to the reservoir to nest.
“It was exciting to write just about the daily ins and outs of working with the eagles and going out on the lake catching all their food,” she said.
Davis also got a chance to observe the first nesting loons in the state, including their daily activities in her journals, as well as living in an area that at the time had 60 deer per square mile.
The reservoir area has dramatically changed in the past 28 years. The deer herd has been dramatically reduced through hunting, resulting in greater diversity of plant species. Also, bear and moose — rarely if ever seen at the reservoir in 1985 — now regularly roam the woods, and eagles are regularly seen not only at the reservoir but throughout the state.
The book chronicles a life dedicated to nature, but pulls no punches. While working with the eagles, Davis went through a divorce. She later married Bill Davis, the central district supervisor for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who worked with her on the eagle project and took over as the head of the project when Jack Swedberg retired.
Today the couple lives quietly in their home in Grafton with mementoes of their time with the eagles, including a large aerial photograph of the Quabbin Reservoir over their mantle, and a collection of eagle artifacts, including feathers, a stick from an eagle nest and a claw from an eagle that died at the Tufts Veterinary Medicine Clinic after being injured in an accident.
Davis will hold a talk and book signing from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Feb. 21 at Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary in Princeton, and at the Millers River Environmental Center in Athol on March 12.