There’s no mistaking the white head and tail. I saw a bald eagle swooping over my yard for the first time. I had seen them increasingly while driving across the Blackwater River and even passed three regulars almost every day on my commute to Salisbury, MD.
Now they had settled in the area. A neighbor had seen a nest on a dirt road near my home.
I walked down the road to check it out. Where the loblollies had thinned out from tidal flooding, I saw the nest among several dead trees. The eagles had come home to roost.
The story of plummeting and rebounding bald eagle reproduction during and after two postwar decades steeped in the use and later ban on the pesticide DDT had played out here in the Bay watershed, where populations seesawed wildly. A Baltimore Sun article on June 26, 1961, reported that Chesapeake bald eagle populations had decreased by 80 percent. Fifty years later — and less than 40 years after the total ban on DDT in 1972 — bald eagle counts on Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge skyrocketed to 367 birds, up from the lowest count of 74 in 1980.
Yet the decline of bald eagles in the Bay watershed dates back before the DDT years, when the pesticide weakened eggshells to the point where the chick inside failed to develop, as well as built up in the adults’ bodies, killing them.
The bald eagle suffered bad press during the first years of the United States, when Benjamin Franklin regretted its being designated a national symbol in 1784. He called the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly.…[T]oo lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labours 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.”
Stories of the bald eagle’s predatory side echo throughout the 19th century, as seen in Thomas Nuttall’s 1840 Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada:
“[W]hen the resources of the ocean diminish, or fail from any cause…, [the bald eagles’] inland depredations are soon notorious, young lambs, pigs, fawns, and even deer often becoming his prey. So indiscriminate indeed is the fierce appetite of this bold bird, that instances are credibly related of their carrying away infants. An attempt of this kind, according to [the 1808 American Ornithology by Alexander] Wilson, was made upon a child lying by its mother as she was weeding a garden at Great Egg Harbor in New Jersey; but the garment seized upon by the Eagle giving way at the instant of the attempt, the life of the child was spared. I have heard of another instance said to have happened at Petersburgh, in Georgia, near the Savannah river, where an infant, sleeping in the shade near the house, was seized and carried to the eyry near the edge of a swamp 5 miles distant, and when found, almost immediately, the child was dead.”
Accounts of bald eagles preying on farm animals, and even carrying off children, went viral in the age of article sharing in newspapers and magazines — seemingly to fatal effect. By 1919, naturalist Henry W. Shoemaker in his introduction to John H. Chatham’s The Bald Eagle on the Susquehanna River wrote, “Apparently the Bald Eagle…has disappeared from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania….” He observes that “a new era seemed to dawn, in which the eagle was judged as a thief and interloper, and given no quarter by every pot-hunter….One by one, he was shot down, until today the Bald Eagle is a memory as far as Pennsylvania is concerned.”
As bald eagles become more common and interact more with humans, will the national bird wear out its welcome? Testimony to the worst-case situation can be found with the bald eagle’s cousin in A Rare Visitor - The Golden Eagle, in the North Carolina Whig of March 3, 1852. “C. L. H.” writes that a pair of golden eagles appearing in Mecklenburg County “was hailed with delight” by people of the neighborhood who had seen the species “but seldom.” The author added that “their sojourn would have been particularly agreeable had their visit been attended with no predatory adventures. But unfortunately, their proneness to attack the innocent…was soon manifested in killing several unoffending geese.” The loss of these barnyard birds “could not be long borne by the suffering inhabitants,” who trapped one eagle and shot the other.
Flash-forward 160 years to bald eagles making a reappearance in the 21st century. Media accounts of bald (or golden) eagles preying on lambs in Oregon and on free-range chickens in Georgia have documented how ranchers have attempted various strategies to deal with predation, including applying to the Fish and Wildlife Service to receive a permit to haze depredating eagles and eagles that pose a risk to human or eagle health or safety. These permits allow “disturbance, harassment and trap-relocate” methods, such as the use of Bird Bangers, 15mm rounds that travel 50–125 feet downrange before “exploding with a loud report.” Issued for one year or less, a permit is “intended to provide short-term relief for bird damage until long-term, non-lethal measures can be implemented to eliminate or significantly reduce the problem.”
Bald eagle stories have moved beyond ranchers to the social media. A YouTube search of “bald eagle” produces an array of clips ranging from Wow! Up Close and Personal with a Bald Eagle to Bald Eagle Snatches up Grown Cat in Front Yard. A telling clip (from the television program Inside Edition), Police Close Down Road to Rescue Injured Bald Eagle, shows police and fire personnel diverting traffic to protect an injured bald eagle struck on a road in Clearwater, FL, until wildlife rescuers arrive to remove the bird. We learn in the report that the eagle went through surgery to repair a chipped wing bone, but “the prognosis looked great, and it should be flying high again in no time.”
The question of run-ins between bald eagles and people was raised in the watershed in early 2016, when 13 bald eagles were found dead near a farm in Federalsburg, MD, and another five dead eagles appeared in Sussex County, DE, in March. In January, three bald eagles — two of them dead — were found outside Easton, MD, near the scavenged remains of an “apparently poisoned” fox carcass.
The surviving bald eagle from Easton and two found alive at the Sussex County site came to Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research of Newark, DE, which nursed them back to health and released them into the wild. The mission of Tri-State is to rehabilitate “injured, orphaned, and oiled native wild birds, with the goal of returning healthy birds to their natural environment.”
Tri-State Executive Director Lisa Smith said that there are primarily three reasons that bald eagles are brought to Tri-State for rehabilitation, most related to winter scavenging when fish are not readily available. First, scavenging eagles may ingest rodenticide or other kinds of poison; fragments of lead ammunition; or fishing gear.
Second, bald eagles (and vultures) scavenging on roadkill are often hit by speeding vehicles as the birds struggle to gain altitude in time to avoid a collision.
Finally, bald eagles are occasionally the victims of wanton shootings — perhaps shots targeted at vultures (also protected federally by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) on the wing or clustered over roadkill.
Smith said that run-ins are on the upswing. Only five to 10 bald eagles a year were brought to Tri-State two decades ago; in 2016, the number was 61. In the first six months of 2017, more than 40 were brought in. “More bald eagles are often competing for less space,” she added, referring to some areas already reduced by development, resulting in territorial fighting between bald eagles and their nesting closer to humans in the suburbs of Wilmington, DE, and Philadelphia.
Smith said that the sooner wildlife rescue organizations such as Tri-State see an injured or sick bald eagle the better the odds of a successful outcome. Protocols include immediately getting blood tests and X-rays to decide on the necessary treatments.
Both poisons and lead poisoning can be treatable when the toxins or lead objects are removed from the bird, and fluids and detoxifying agents are administered. The release of 16 bald eagles out of 32 toxin-related cases admitted to Tri-State from 2012 to 2016 testify to the possibility of success.
Are clashes between bald eagles and humans inevitable as habitat and development press in on one another? Smith suggested that a few measures can make a difference, such as Delmarva Power redesigning the distance between parallel energized distribution lines and occasionally rerouting or flagging power lines to reduce electrocutions and collisions.
We can do our part by being responsible pet owners when our dogs and cats are outdoors and by giving scavenging bald eagles and vultures enough reaction time on the roads to safely take flight. Most importantly, when a bird is injured, making a quick call to your local wildlife rehabilitation program could make a life-saving difference.
So is the sojourn of bald eagles still agreeable to Americans, unlike the fate of the golden eagles killed and captured in 1852 North Carolina? The answer will depend on your own experience, Smith said. “You will be excited to see an eagle as a birder. If you raise livestock or chickens, you may view them in terms of potential economic losses.”
What if you see them for the first time snatching a fish from an osprey or scavenging roadkill? “We should not anthropomorphize bald eagles, nor see them as domestic animals or pets.” Smith said, “This is especially true for those of us who spend less time in nature and more time online.” Referring to the views of Franklin and others such as Mabel Osgood Wright, who called the bald eagle “an inveterate bully” in her 1895 Birdcraft.Smith calls upon observers to abandon human judgements of morality and see bald eagles for what they are in nature.
In fact, the bald eagle still benefits from a reservoir of goodwill, with its image on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs. Smith pointed out that “every time people see the national bird while driving down the road, they shout out, ‘Look at the bald eagle.’ The fact is that everybody likes a comeback.”
With the Chesapeake region being ground zero in the story of the bald eagle’s decline and return, is Lisa Smith optimistic? “Yes, I am,” she quickly responded. “So far, so good. We don’t know if we have reached carrying capacity yet. But we find solutions as problems arise. And I am still as excited seeing a bald eagle out there as most people are.”
Although the bald eagle may find itself the subject of bickering and false news accusations in social media — read the heated comments in YouTube’s Most Vicious Hawk and Eagle Attacks on Cats and Kittens — it finds territory for itself as it has long before the earliest descriptions in U.S. media and first postings on YouTube. Now it is living in my midst in Bay Country, flying over the yard and nesting a short walk away.
Unlike Benjamin Franklin, I am happy to welcome the bald eagle back home on its own terms, a survivor who has managed to live with us, “adapting itself to circumstances” in the words of William Wood’s The Birds of Connecticut, No. 4 of 1878. The bird deserves our learning to get along, too.
The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.