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In The Country

Flying High - America’s Eagle

Tim Iverson

(5/2015) Our nations bird, the Bald Eagle, sometimes called the American Eagle, has a storied past. They’re the comeback kid. They were as abundant as the stars in the night sky at one time. In the mid 20th century they faced near extinction, but through effective management techniques, habitat restoration, and protection have rebounded back to a healthy and stable population with ever increasing numbers. They can be seen locally in the wild and up close and personal at local zoos and aviaries. Historically people have been part of the problem, but today are an integral part of the solution.

Bald Eagles are known for their distinctive white heads, white tails, golden yellow beaks, and dark blackish brown bodies. Before reaching maturity their bodies, including heads and tails, are predominantly a mottled brown with white streaky speckles. Around four to five years of age they will develop their characteristic feathering. Life span for a wild bald eagle can be as long as 20 years old, but in captivity have been known to live up to 40 and older!

Bald Eagles are only found in North America, which is why they’re often called The American Eagle. Typically, they are found in wooded areas near bodies of water. Eagles are known to migrate too. Eagles that reside within the central part of the United States and Canada occasionally move to a seacoast during colder winter months. Usually their nests are located adjacent rivers, lakes, bays, reservoirs, and marshes because eagles prefer to eat fish. Like other birds of prey, Eagles have strong feet with talons they use to capture prey. Their hooked beak works like a fork and knife, and they use it to tear apart their meal into smaller bite sized pieces. Their vision is excellent and with their frontal facing eyes have great binocular and peripheral vision, which makes them pretty fearsome predators.

When you’re the king of the skies you take what you want. Eagles notoriously rob other raptors of kills, and either eat the find themselves or return to their nest to feed their young. Benjamin Franklin was displeased when the eagle was elected to become our symbol. He commented, "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish...the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him...Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country."

Eagles aren’t totally devoid of morals. Once they reach maturity and select a mate, they will remain together for life. Courtship displays involve some serious high flying acrobatics. They will loop, swoop, and cartwheel around with each other. They’ll ascend to blistering heights, lock talons, and free fall through the air separating just before hitting the ground. They will produce one to three eggs in a given year, generally laying them towards the end of February. Eggs will hatch sometime between mid-April to early May. The eaglets will begin to fly in July, and leave the nest between August and September.

Their lives haven’t always been easy ones. Population numbers dramatically declined in the mid 20th century, from a combination of factors. One leading cause was the widespread use of the pesticide DDT. DDT didn’t necessarily harm healthy adult birds, but rather their ability to reproduce or produce healthy offspring. DDT occasionally made eagles sterile, but usually affected calcium production creating weak egg shells that failed to protect the eaglets within. It is estimated that in the 18th century populations were between 25,000 - 75,000 pairs, then approximately 10,000 paris in the 1950’s, and endangered levels of just 412 by the early 1960’s.

Through effective management techniques, habitat restoration, and the banning of DDT eagle populations have rebounded significantly. According the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service populations are estimated at 10,000 pairs in the 48 contiguous states, as of 2006. In 2007, they were removed from the federal endangered species list, and in 2010 Maryland followed suit and removed them from the separate Maryland Endangered and Threatened list. In 1977 there were only 44 nesting pairs within Maryland. As of 2004 there were at least 390 pairs, and today there is at least one nesting pair in every county.

Some eagles still face challenges. Cunningham Falls State Park recently acquired a non-releasable eagle that will make its official public debut in May. A call was referred to the Maryland Wildlife & Heritage Service in southern Maryland about a bald eagle seen on the ground. The bird was picked up by one of their technicians and taken to a highly reputable vet, Dr. Gold of Chadwell Animal Hospital. This eagle was found to have a broken right wing, is partially blind due to a laceration on its eye, and brain damage. This male eagle was also underweight and malnourished, as it had likely been scavenging on the ground for some time. Due to these factors it can never survive on its own in the wild again.

The Scales & Tales program offered by the Maryland Park Service will give him the best possible quality of life and use him to share conservation messages to help people protect wildlife and wildlands. His atypical gentle spirit and calm demeanor makes him a great program bird, and will continue to inspire Marylanders to make a lasting impression. Aviary visitation hours will reopen in May, and are 8am to sunset. It is recommended to call the visitor center at 301-271-3676 prior to visiting to ensure the aviary will be open. Symbolic animal adoptions are also available. Funds generated through this program go directly to the care, rehabilitation, and enrichment program for the Scales & Tales animals.

Bald Eagles, locally and nationally, have faced a tumultuous past. They have come back leaps and bounds from their precarious situation of the 1960’s. Raptors and other birds of prey are often attracted to road sides due to increased litter which attracts prey species scavenging for a meal. Motorist are encouraged to hang onto trash, including biodegradable things like apple cores and banana peels, until they can properly dispose of them to help reduce and prevent future injuries to hawks, eagles, owls, and all wildlife. While the Maryland Park Service offers this incredible program to Marylanders they prefer to let wildlife be wild, and don’t have the capacity or ability to care for all animals that suffer this fate. You can be of most help to these birds and other wildlife by taking trash with you, animal adoptions and donations, or donating your time by volunteering at an aviary or park near you.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson