Animals

Ron and Rita Are the Feel-Good Bird Story Miami Needs Right Now

Ron and Rita's eggs are expected to hatch sometime between Christmas and New Year's Day.
Ron and Rita's eggs are expected to hatch sometime between Christmas and New Year's Day. Screenshot via ZooMiami Eagle Cam
Mayor Daniella Levine Cava might've helped the Miami-Dade County Commission kill two "birds" — the bonneted bat and the tri-colored heron — with her decision not to veto the governing body's 10-2 vote to approve a developer's proposal for 550 new homes on the former Calusa golf course in West Kendall, but Miami nature lovers have a new feathered flock to focus on in South Florida: Ron and Rita, a pair of bald eagles who produced two eggs in a manmade nest while being broadcast live on ZooMiami's Eagle Cam.

Most of the credit, of course, goes to Rita, who laid her first egg on Thanksgiving Eve and her second on Saturday — just five hours after Cava endeavored to explain why she let the commission's zoning vote stand despite more than 5,000 emails from area residents.

ZooMiami spokesperson and outspoken wildlife conservationist Ron Magill — who took time off from work to attend the November 17 zoning hearing as a private citizen and famously told commissioners, "You can't buy wildlife once it's dead" — tells New Times he's "disappointed in the mayor's decision not to veto" and that he "will continue to fight with every fiber of [his] being against what [he] considers indelible stains on future generations."

But Magill hasn't had time to sulk. Over the past few days, he says, hundreds of people have told him they're "addicted" to Ron & Rita's Eagle Cam livestream, a collaboration between ZooMiami and Wildlife Rescue of Dade County that's sponsored by the Ron Magill Conservation Endowment. Magill says he got "goosebumps" when Rita laid her first egg and he's "beyond excited that Rita is presently sitting on two eggs, and that everything is going well."

After a roller coaster of a year with local, national, and avian news, the promise of Ron and Rita's unhatched fledglings is the feel-good bird story the community needs. Over the holiday weekend, thousands of onlookers filled the YouTube live chat with messages of redemption and support. Now everyone's on "pip watch" — the first crack of the egg when a fledgling begins to hatch.

"The creation of life is a beautiful thing," wrote one commenter after Rita laid her second egg.

"Good job, mama Rita!!!!" ventured another.

Wrote a third: "Ron how dare you miss the birth of your second born."

A YouTube user who goes by Niteprowl offered an internet benediction of sorts: "May these eggs be blessed with good health and long life.... My greatest enjoyment in life is watching eagles lay eggs."

"These eagles have certainly generated tremendous interest and excitement!" Magill says. "This could be one of the best feel-good stories of the year. As it stands now, if the two eggs are fertile and barring any predation or other natural disaster, they are expected to hatch sometime between Christmas and New Year's Day."

As the world moved inside in March of 2020, people began to take more interest in the outside. National Geographic reported last year that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird and NestWatch citizen science websites experienced a significant uptick during the pandemic. Aquariums in Georgia, California, and Maryland all reported increased traffic on their webcams last year, too. Earlier this year, a pair of red-tailed hawks captured the attention of the Syracuse University community when an alum donated a webcam to livestream the couple as their three eggs hatched.

Perhaps no other pair of animals achieved as much reality-TV stardom as Jackie and Shadow, a pair of bald eagles with their own 24/7 webcam in Big Bear National Park in California. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world tuned in to watch the pair care for five eggs that never became fledglings — two were eaten by ravens, a third was lost during the laying process, the fourth started to hatch but then stopped moving, and the fifth never hatched at all. The previous year, Jackie laid two eggs but neither hatched. In 2019, the pair's eaglet, named Cookie, died of apparent hypothermia.

Despite the tragedies, the internet couldn't seem to look away, spellbound by the eagles' saga, remarking on the sound Jackie made when she saw that ravens had killed her offspring and how doting Shadow can be.

"Need some positive thoughts for Big Bear nests after so much heartbreak in those nests the past few years," one user commented on the ZooMiami live chat Saturday night.

"I've seen some sad things over the years, but learned so much even through the tears," wrote another.

They're the country's national emblem, but bald eagles were at one point on the brink of extinction and spent more than 40 years on the federal Endangered Species Act list. In 2007, they were brought off the list thanks to federal laws still in place today that protect the animals, their feathers, eggs, nests, and nest trees.

Though zoos can help endangered and threatened species through captive breeding programs, that's considered the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. Reintroducing captive animals back into the wild is not always successful, and for a species to survive only in captivity isn't necessarily a win in the conservation world.

That's why Ron Magill took time off work to speak out against the 550-plan on the former Calusa golf course: to protect the natural habitat of the state-threatened bonneted bats and tri-colored herons before it comes to that.

Save Calusa leader Amanda Prieto tells New Times that while residents are disappointed that Cava didn't veto the zoning vote, they're reassured that Cava will work closely with the county's Department of Environmental Resource Management to protect all endangered and threatened species. Residents strongly feel that the surveys will confirm that the former Calusa golf course is indeed home to state-threatened species of birds, and that environmental protections will prevent specific trees from being cut down and may even scale back the proposed development plans altogether.

Prieto estimates that the birds' habitat should be safe until August of 2022 while the surveys are taking place.

"The trajectory that Miami-Dade County is on with regard to development is disastrous," Magill says.

Year after year, eagles Ron and Rita return to the same (undisclosed) nesting site in South Florida. But in March, a storm destroyed their nest. One of their eaglets fell and had to undergo surgery for a broken wing. After the eaglet was rehabilitated and released into the wild, Lloyd Brown and Jemma Peterson of Wildlife Rescue of Dade County worked to secure a more stable nesting site in the same tree and installed high-definition cameras to observe the pair.

There was no guarantee that they'd return to the tree after its nest was destroyed, nor that they would build their nest on the manmade platform. There was genuine concern that the new cameras would frighten them.

But Ron and Rita did come back, and, after some hesitation, they settled on the platform and brought branches and leaves to finish their nest.

Though everything seems to be going according to plan, Magill cautions that the eagles are not out of the woods yet (as it were). The U.S. Forest Service estimates that bald eagles' nesting success averages between 50 and 60 percent and, if the eggs hatch, the eaglets' survival rate during its first year is roughly 50 percent.

"Nature doesn't always write happily-ever-after stories," Magill says. "There are still so many things that can go wrong."

Eagles mate for life. This particular pair happens to bear the first names of their six-foot, six-inch benefactor and his wife, Rita.

Magill says the names were chosen by Wildlife Rescue volunteers, and that he's touched by the gesture.

"It is truly one of the most wonderful honors that I have been given," the career conservationist says. "And if Rita is half as good a spouse and mother as my wife, things will work out well!" 
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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Contact: Jess Swanson