Most people of my generation remember with clarity the first time they saw a wild bald eagle.
For me, it was on a beautiful summer afternoon while I waded and fished along Ohio Brush Creek near Serpent Mound in 1961. I was an impressionable 14 year old boy … thus began my lifelong love affair with these majestic birds.
We almost lost the bald eagle in Ohio and across most of the lower 48 states after World War II. Their number were so reduced that in 1967 the bald eagle, the symbol of our nation, was placed on the Federal Endangered Species List. By 1974, only four nesting pairs remained in our state and all of those nests were near Lake Erie. Even though I spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and fishing, many decades would pass before I ever glimpsed another bald eagle in Ohio.
I learned about the environmental disaster caused by the pesticide DDT because the book “Silent Spring” was required reading during my high school years. This extremely important book, authored by Rachel Carson in 1962, turned out to be a literal lifesaver for countless animals including our bald eagles. The book and the story of Rachel Carson should remain required learning because as a famous philosopher once said, “Those who do not learn history are bound to repeat it.”
The Little Miami River and the lakes and tributaries that comprise its watershed were once home to many bald eagles. By the early 1970s, all were gone. Not a single wild eagle remained. The use of DDT was finally banned in the United States in 1972, but environmental recovery was painfully slow. It would take almost 50 years of sustained work by federal and state wildlife officials, biologists and countless volunteers to slowly bring bald eagles back to healthy and widely distributed population levels.
Today, those efforts have paid off handsomely. The bald eagle was finally removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Species List in 2007. Incredibly, the bald eagle now enjoys the status of species of “Least Concern,” meaning it’s no longer threatened anywhere in its original range (Alaska to northern Mexico). This is not to say bald eagles are no longer protected by law. They certainly are. They remain protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (1940) and criminal penalties could apply if you “take or disturb” eagles.
Humans remain the greatest threat to bald eagles. Eagle mortality studies show (in rounded numbers) that “trauma,” collision with structures and vehicles, result in almost 30 percent of all eagle deaths. Sadly, “gunshots” still account for an additional 25 percent of the deaths. Significant also are “electrocution” (10 percent), “poisoning” (10 percent) and “trapping” (5 percent). That leaves only about 20 percent of the annual bald eagle deaths attributable to so called “natural causes” which includes the category of “emaciation” which might or might not be related to human activity.
In addition to the ongoing man made dangers, the bald eagle is also at a disadvantage because it reproduces slowly. bald eagles don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 4 to 5 years old. Then they mate (usually for life) and build their first nest which they typically enlarge and reuse year after year. Another big problem for bald eagles is what ornithologists term the length of the “nesting period.” bald eagles nest once a year and lay only one to three eggs. In the Little Miami River watershed, they lay their eggs in late February or early March. Then, the eagles must incubate the eggs 35 days before they hatch and after the eaglets hatch, they remain in the nest for up to three additional months while both adults feed and protect them.
Once the young eagles finally leave the nest (fledge), they continue to depend on their parents for food and “hunting lessons” another two to three months. If you add it all up, you’ll see that bald eagles require more than six months to complete a single nesting period. Compare that to the nesting period of robins. Robins typically lay five to six eggs and the eggs hatch after only 14 days of incubation. Ten to 14 days later, the young robins are big enough to “jump” out of the nest. After their young jump the nest, the adult robins continue to feed them for a week or two at the most. Then, the adults are free to nest a second and sometimes a third time in the same year.
I have had the privilege to monitor three pairs of bald eagles that nest in the Little Miami watershed for the past five years. Over that period of time, the adults on these nests have raised 22 young eagles. Studies indicate that sexually mature bald eagles often return to the same general geographic area where they were raised when it’s finally their time to mate and begin “housekeeping.” This year, I’ll begin watching two new bald eagle nests in our area and it’s entirely possible that I knew some of these young adult eagles when they were once reckless juveniles.
In summary I say, “Keep your eyes peeled and keep looking up.” The next big black bird you see in the distance might not be a vulture; it might be one of our many Little Miami River bald eagles.
Bill Schieman is an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist and has helped develop and led many programs in state and local parks. In 2015, he was awarded The Individual of the Year Award from the Greater Dayton Partners for the Environment. Contact him at [email protected]