By Dr. Becker
For the first time in 100 years, a pair of bald eagles has been confirmed to be nesting in New York City, on the south shore of Staten Island. The success story began last winter, during which eagles were spotted in all five boroughs of New York.
A pair of nesting birds was spotted later on the north shore of Staten Island, but couldn’t be confirmed. The latest pair, however, appears to have made the island their home, and locals have named the male “Vito.” The female is thought to be incubating eggs.1 This is cause for celebration, especially given eagles’ near brush with extinction…
How Humans Almost Caused Bald Eagles to Go Extinct
In 1782, when the US adopted the bald eagle as its national symbol, there were an estimated 100,000 nesting birds (and some estimates say there were closer to 500,000). Their numbers dropped dramatically in the coming centuries due to several factors:2
- Forests were cleared out, removing much of the eagles’ native habitat
- Shorebirds and ducks, eagles’ natural prey, declined in numbers due to overhunting, leaving the eagles with difficulty finding a steady food source
- The introduction of the pesticide DDT, which built up in adult eagles and lead them to lay thin-shelled eggs that cracked before the chicks hatched
- Eagles were also shot and killed because they were deemed a threat to livestock; some eagles also died from lead poisoning after eating waterfowl contaminated with lead
In the early 1960s, there were under 500 nesting pairs remaining, and the species was listed as endangered in the late ‘60s. At that time, only one pair of eagles was known to be nesting in New York (down from more than 70 nesting pairs in the early 1900s). After DDT was banned in the early 1970s, however, bald eagle populations began to slowly recover.
New York State also launched an eagle recuperation program of its own from 1976 to 1988. Biologists collected nearly 200 nestling bald eagles from Alaska and relocated them to New York.
They were given food and the opportunity to slowly acclimate to the new environment, and were eventually released into the wild.
In the 1990s, bald eagles were dropped from the endangered species list, and by 2010 there were 173 pairs counted in New York State.3 Overall, there are now 69,000 bald eagles in the US, and New York City isn’t their only “big city” home.4 Nesting pairs have also been spotted in other urban areas including Philadelphia, Miami, and Washington, D.C.5
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act are also helping to protect bald eagles, as they make it illegal to kill, sell, or harm eagles, their nests, or their eggs.6
Do You Want to See Bald Eagles in the Wild?
If you’d like to spot these majestic birds in their own habitat, and you live in the US or Canada, you’re in luck. Eagles are now found in every state except Hawaii, although they’re more abundant in some states than others.
Alaska is home to the largest concentration of bald eagles in the US, particularly on the Chilkat River near Haines, Alaska from mid-October through December. They’re also abundant in British Columbia. If a trip to Alaska or British Columbia isn’t in your future, you can also see them in the Northern Mississippi Valley during January and February. According to one bald eagle viewing directory:7
“As many as five thousand bald eagles winter on the river between Cairo, Illinois and St. Paul, Minnesota. Several communities host bald eagle festivals.
During the month of January, one can attend the Quad Cities Bald Eagle Days, Clinton Bald Eagle Watch, Dubuque Bald Eagle Watch in Iowa, Keokuk Bald Eagle Days in Iowa, Muscatine Bald Eagle Watch in Iowa, LeClaire Bald Eagle Watch, and the Quincy Bald Eagle Watch. In February, the Hampton Bald Eagle Watch in IL.
… For those who go south in the winter, Emory, Texas hosts January Eagle Fest with a juried art exhibit and barge tours of lakes where eagles gather.
In Canada, from mid-November through mid-February thousands of bald eagles gather along the Squamish, Mamquam, and Cheakamus rivers near Brackendale and Squamish, British Columbia to feast on spawning salmon. Brackendale and Squamish are located about 45 minutes north of Vancouver on Hwy 99.”
Fascinating Bald Eagle Facts
Bald eagles are truly remarkable birds. With wingspans ranging from 6 to 7.5 feet, a prominent yellow hooked beak, and a striking white head full of feathers, their appearance alone earns them some distinction.
However, these birds are intriguing for other reasons as well. They have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years and, unlike many birds, rarely flap their wings. Bald eagles soar through the sky instead.
Bald eagles live near bodies of water and sometimes engage in “talon clasping” or “cartwheel displays.” The birds will clasp talons in mid-air and spin downward, only letting go when they’ve nearly hit the ground. This is thought to be a form of territorial battle or a courtship ritual.8
Once an eagle finds its partner, they mate for life and work together to build a large nest out of sticks. The nests may be used year after year and measure eight feet across.9
While the birds are making a comeback across the US, they’re not completely out of the woods yet.
An individual can go to prison and be fined $250,000 for killing a bald eagle, but wind turbines that have popped up in the US as a form of renewable energy have killed at least 67 bald eagles over a five-year period (the real number is likely much higher and many other protected bird and bat species are also being affected).10
Unfortunately, wind energy companies obtain 30-year permits that allow them to kill or injure eagles without being prosecuted. The American Bird Conservancy has sued the US government over the ruling, as they fear the measure could put the birds back on the verge of extinction.11