My fascination with the Bald Eagle can certainly be traced back to the early 90’s when I was a fairly new State Park Ranger at Millerton Lake State Recreation Area. In addition to chasing intoxicated boaters and noisy campers one of my more inspirational assignments was giving wintering Bald Eagle tours on our “Eagle Barge”. Showing these magnificent birds to park visitors was a highlight of this assignment. Needless to say, my appreciation for these wonderful birds lives on strong today and when I have the opportunity to view them in the wild it is always a treat.
“In an eagle there is all the wisdom of the world.” – Lame Deer
My neighbors at the Chickenstock Music Festival were from Valdez Alaska. Originally Valdez wasn’t on my list of places to visit on this trip but after hearing from them the virtues of the town I decided I had to visit. I will be writing more about the stay in Valdez in my next post but it seemed appropriate to dedicate a special post to the Bald Eagles (and the Golden Eagles) in this beautiful city.
During late May and the first half of June the owner of one of the RV parks in Valdez has a permit from Fish and Wildlife to provide supplemental feeding to the local eagles. Each night at 5:00 he serves up about 22 pounds of herring by tossing them high in the air for the swooping birds to catch. About the middle of June the birds start to disappear as they move to their natural feeding on the salmon runs. Fortunately I was in Valdez at a time to view this up close. It was quite a sight to see these wild birds swooping down to grasp the herring in their talons and fighting over stray fish. My new camera captured some awesome photos of these great birds.
History is full of references to this bird of prey. Two hundred and thirty-five years ago—on June 20, 1782—the bald eagle became an American icon when the Second Continental Congress decided to use its image on The Great Seal.
A seemingly unlikely foe, Ben Franklin would become the bald eagle’s greatest detractor. Viewing the national bird through overly scientific spectacles, he judged it immoral because it pirated fish from the osprey and cowardly because it retreated from the aggressive, yet comparatively small, Eastern kingbird.
“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” – Benjamin Franklin
At that time the Congress had considered another bird—not the wild turkey championed by Benjamin Franklin, but a more fanciful eagle inspired by the imperial eagle of the Eastern Hemisphere (no not native to the US). In altering the earlier design, Charles Thomson, secretary of the Congress, substituted the native bald eagle suspended on spread wings, “to denote,” he said, “that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.”
Of course the eagle has been respected and revered by numerous Native American tribes for centuries.
There are numerous stories and legends including those from the Inuit people previously called “Eskimos,” which was a name applied to them by the Algonquin Indians meaning “eaters of raw meat.” The name “Inuit,” from the Inuit language means “people” or “real people” who inhabit a vast Arctic area stretching nearly 6000 kilometers, from the islands of far western Alaska to the east coast of Greenland.
Distinguished by a white head and white tail feathers, bald eagles are powerful, brown birds that may weigh up to 14 pounds and have a wingspan of 8 feet. Male eagles are smaller, weighing as much as 10 pounds and have a wingspan of 6 feet.
Sometimes confused with golden eagles, bald eagles are mostly dark brown until they are four to five years old and acquire their characteristic white head. There is a distinction between the two species, though, even during those early years. Only the tops of the bald eagle’s legs have feathers. The legs of golden eagles are feathered all the way down.
Bald eagles live near bodies of water where they can find fish, their staple food. Eagles mate for life, choosing the tops of large trees to build nests, which they typically reuse and enlarge each year. Nests may reach 10 feet across and weigh a half ton, large enough for a grown man to disappear in. Bald eagles may live 15 to 25 years in the wild, longer in captivity. Breeding bald eagles typically lay one to three eggs once a year, and they hatch after about 35 days. The young eagles are flying within three months and are on their own about a month later. However, disease, lack of food, bad weather, or human interference can kill many eaglets and research has shown only 70% survive their first year of life.
A strictly North American species with a historic range from Alaska and Canada to northern Mexico, the bald eagle is an Endangered Species Act success story. This is certainly something to remember as we move into this new administration’s seemingly “anti-environment” policies.
Magnificent in stature and beautiful to behold, the bald eagle historically nearly disappeared from the lower-48 states. When America adopted the bald eagle as the national symbol in 1782, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles. The first major decline of the species likely began in the mid to late 1800’s, coinciding with the decline of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other prey.
Although they primarily eat fish and carrion, bald eagles used to be considered marauders that preyed on chickens, lambs, and domestic livestock. Consequently, the large raptors were shot in an effort to eliminate a perceived threat. Coupled with the loss of nesting habitat, bald eagle populations began to decline.
In 1940, noting that the species was “threatened with extinction,” Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited killing, selling, or possessing the species. A 1962 amendment added the golden eagle, and the law became the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
“As the eagle was killed by the arrow winged with his own feather, so the hand of the world is wounded by its own skill.” – Helen Keller
Shortly after World War II, DDT was hailed as a new pesticide to control mosquitoes and other insects. However, DDT and its residues washed into nearby waterways, where aquatic plants and fish absorbed it. Bald eagles, in turn, were poisoned with DDT when they ate the contaminated fish. The chemical interfered with the ability of the birds to produce strong eggshells. As a result, their eggs had shells so thin that they often broke during incubation or otherwise failed to hatch. In addition to the adverse effects of DDT, some bald eagles have died from lead poisoning after feeding on waterfowl containing lead shot, either as a result of hunting or from inadvertent ingestion.
By 1963, with only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining, the species was in danger of extinction.
Under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, a precursor to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the bald eagle was officially declared an endangered species in 1967.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lead extensive efforts with the National Wildlife Federation and others to facilitate recovery of the bald eagle. These efforts included captive breeding programs, reintroductions, law enforcement, and nest site protection.
Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, the banning of DDT and the efforts of many biologists and concerned citizens across the country, the bald eagle population reached about 10,000 pairs. In 2007 the bald eagle was officially taken off of the list of threatened and endangered species. Although the Service removed the bald eagle from the list of threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, the bird will still be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Both laws prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests, or eggs.
“Nature needs no help, just no interference.” -BJ Palmer
Once again, the bald eagle soars the skies and thrills the hearts of those who are lucky enough to behold our national symbol in the wild. Both the Bald and the Golden Eagle give us hope for wildlife conservation and our ability to take care of the planet and the ecosystem.
The continued success of this species requires vigilance: Threats include oil spills—the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 killed some 250 eagles, and the local eagle population did not recover until 1995. Poisoning from lead fishing sinkers has also been implicated in eagle deaths. As humans encroach on eagle habitat, and vice versa, collisions with man-made structures and with vehicles are expected to rise.
Here’s hoping that the future of these and other declining species will hold an important place in our hearts and our minds as we fight to maintain the protections necessary for their continued survival.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtfully committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
If I have given the reader a greater respect and appreciation for this marvelous bird then my goal has been accomplished. My recommendation – take a trip to Alaska to see these incredible birds, you won’t be sorry!