After 40 years of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the Bald Eagle is about to be delisted. A decision is expected this spring. Delisting is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Julie Victoria, a Wildlife Biologist with the CT DEP. It signals success, since one of the goals of the Act is restoring populations. Just to be on the safe side, the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act has been strengthened to ensure that eagle habitat will still be protected. The Bald Eagle remains on the State of CT Endangered list, but will be eligible for review in 2009.
An eagle soaring over Roseland Lake. Bald Eagles have a wingspan of 6.5-7 feet. Photo by Nathaniel Shedd.
Back in 1967 when the federal government first listed Bald Eagles as endangered, there were only 500 known breeding pairs nationwide. Today there are more than 6,500 breeding pairs (Source: USFWS). This recovery was achieved by banning pesticides like DDT, reintroduction, and habitat and nest protection. Hunting is prohibited. From 1917 to 1952, at least 128,000 eagles were killed under an Alaskan bounty program because fishermen thought they were causing a decline in salmon. Compare this to a total summer population in CT of about two dozen eagles, and a winter population of about 100 eagles.
For the first time since the 1950’s, Bald Eagles nested in CT in 1992. In 2006, we had 10 nesting pairs. Only 6 were successful, raising 12 chicks. Bald Eagles usually nest 60-80 feet high, in trees next to large bodies of water like the CT River. Nests are huge – one in Ohio weighed more than two tons – and are often reused year after year. While in the nest, the parents walk with clenched feet and carefully step over eggs to protect them. By the time the chicks leave the nest in July, they weigh 8-10 lbs., and have a 6.5-7 foot wingspan.
No nests have been found in Windham County yet, but Andy Rzeznikiewicz, Land Manager at the Bafflin Sanctuary in Pomfret, suspects we may have at least one breeding pair. Last summer, two adults and two juveniles were reported feeding on an animal carcass at a Woodstock farm. Bald Eagles have also been spotted fishing on the Quinnebaug in May-July.
Despite their majestic reputation, Bald Eagles try to expend as little energy as possible when hunting, and stealing can be easier. Mike Bedson, an avid 16 year old naturalist who has been birding since he was 3, was watching an Osprey struggling to lift a huge fish out of the water, and saw a pirate eagle snatch the fish right out of the Osprey’s talons. According to a University of Maine study, 75% of a Bald Eagle’s prey is fish. The rest is mammals or birds like Mergansers. In Alaska, they even chow on garbage at dumps.
That high-pitched “eagle” scream you hear in movies and commercials is really a recording of a Red-tailed Hawk. Eagles actually make a squeaky noise that sounds more like a poodle’s bark. Bald Eagles do engage in spectacularly acrobatic courtship displays. A couple will fly high in the air, lock talons, and then cartwheel back to the earth, breaking off just before they collide with the ground.
Of course, bald eagles are not really bald – they are “piebald,” meaning of different colors (brown and white.) It takes a Bald Eagle 4-5 years to earn their distinctive white head. Young bald eagles are often confused with Golden Eagles, which also show up in CT but do not nest here.
February is peak Eagle viewing time. Small concentrations of Bald Eagles come down from Canada and Maine to overwinter in CT. They may arrive as early as the end of October, but most come at the end of December and stay through March. The Eagle Festival in Essex on Feb. 17-18, 2007 offers a variety of free activities for both adults and children. Call the CT Audubon at (800) 714-7201, or see www.ourbetternature.org/eagle.htm for details about this program, other boat and land-based tours, and a free observation area in Southbury.
Originally published in the Villager on February 9, 2007
UPDATE: “There have been numerous Bald Eagle sightings reported in the area but our wildlife in northeastern Connecticut tends to be under documented. It is important to get volunteers to participate in these types of programs. Without data where it matters, it is difficult to say there is important habitat to protect,” says Jean Pillo of the Woodstock Conservation Commission.
CT Winter Eagle Watches – February is peak viewing time. For 2007:
CT Audubon Society, cruise departing from CT River Museum in Essex, offered four days a week: February 3 through March 18. $35. Reservations a must, call CT Audubon EcoTravel at (800) 996-8747
CT River Eagle Festival land-based guide tours, Essex, Feb.17-18, variety of free activities for adults and children, free shuttles to eagle viewing spots on land. Guided boat tours for a fee, advance reservations required, call (800) 714-7201. Several eagles can be seen from the dock, and as many as 30 may be seen on a boat tour.
The Audubon Shop (birding store), Eagle Watch land-based tours departing from Haddam CT, February 10 and 24, $20 including lunch, reservations required, call (203) 245-9056.
Shepaug Eagle Observation Area in Southbury, CT, open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from December through mid-March. Admission is free but reservations are required. Volunteers are available to answer questions. Individuals and school groups are welcome. Call (800) 368-8954.
Interesting Eagle Facts
The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was designated as our national symbol by Congress in 1782. Its' first appearance on coins was a 1776 copper cent made in Massachusetts. It has since appeared on the reverse side of the U.S. silver dollar, half dollar and quarter, as well as on gold coins.
A survey conducted by the National Wildlife Health Center from 1963-1984 found that at least 68% of eagles found dead during that time period died as a result of human activities:
38% from shooting (even though it is punishable of a fine up to $20,000), trapping and poisoning.
Another 21% died from impact injuries (crashing into power lines or vehicles [sometimes while feeding on road kills], and electrocution)
Others from causes like environmental contamination (e.g., lead pellets used prior to 1991 for waterfowl hunting.)
Eagles were so common in Alaska that a 50¢ bounty was established in 1917, increasing to $2 in 1949 before the bounty was overruled by federal regulation in 1952.
In 1989, an estimated 247 bald eagles died from the Exxon Valdez spill.
(Source: Birds of North America online)
Bald Eagles are the second largest raptor in the U.S. (behind the California Condor).
Like most other raptors, females are about 25% larger than males. Males weigh up to 9 lbs., females up to 14.
The longest lived wild Baldie was 28 years old.
In the summer, CT may have about two dozen eagles. In the winter, we may have up to 100 eagles - most (about 75) are on the CT River the rest (about 25) are on the Housatonic River. A 2006 survey conducted by the CT DEP counted 44 adults, 19 immatures, and 3 unknown.
Bald Eagles in NE CT have been seen in Putnam along the Quinnebaug, and around Quasset, Roseland and Alexander lakes and the Thompson Dam (Source: Andy Rzeznikiewicz)
The Bald Eagle Protection Act went into effect in 1940.
Removing the Bald Eagle from the federal Endangered Species list was first proposed in 1999 during the Clinton Administration.
The first Bald Eagle nest in CT since the 1950's was found in 1992 in Barkhamstead. That nest is still in use. (Source: CT DEP Fact Sheet)
In winter, eagles are pretty sedentary. They conserve energy by roosting in areas protected from prevailing winds, and perching right next to spots where they might be able to forage food. If you see Bald Eagles feeding or roosting, please leave them alone. Of course stay away from nesting areas.
Immature Bald Eagles are sometimes confused with Golden Eagles, which may fly through, but do not nest in, CT.
How to tell a Bald Eagle from a Golden: On the Bald Eagle, lower tarsi are unfeathered (vs. feathered); juvenile tail can have a poorly defined terminal band of brown-black (vs. much more distinct band on Goldens); and more white on underwing and belly (vs. white only on bases of flight feathers). In flight, the head and neck of Golden Eagle does not extend to half the length of the tail. A Golden Eagle is also large, and makes a Red-Tailed Hawk look tiny.
In CT, nest building/addition to an existing nest (which is often reused year after year) starts in February and can last 1-3 mos. A completed nest may measure six or seven feet across the top, and be six feet deep. Egg laying starts in March and the beginning of April. Up to four eggs may be laid, but the typical number is two. (Source: Julie Victoria)
Eagles usually nest more than 500 m (1640 feet) away from human activities. (Source: Birds of North America online)
More than 2000 individual articles have been published on Bald Eagle biology and management (Source: Birds of North America online.)
Eagles are a good example of Bergmann's Rule, a principle that asserts that body mass in warm-blooded animals increases with higher latitudes and colder temperatures. An average adult female weighs 12.8 lbs and the average male 9 lbs. The smallest specimens are from Florida, where an adult male may barely exceed 5 lbs. The largest are from Alaska, where females may exceed 15.5 lb and have a wingspan of approximately 8 feet. (Source: Wikipedia.org, which does contain some misinformation about Bald Eagles.)
On 2/11/07, author Larry Zimmerman reported the following occurrence on Amston Lake, CT: I was in the sun room when I saw the eagle fly by the house. I ran to the window and saw him land in the tree in the next property. An ice fisherman had set out his tip-ups about fifty feet from shore. He had caught a large bass (about 16" - about 2 pounds) and left him on the ice as many of the fishermen do. The eagle was only in the tree about two minutes when he glided down (no flapping of wings) and picked up the fish in his talons as easy as pie. He then flew down the lake to a tree. The fisherman (and his dog) were concentrating on one of his tip-ups and didn't see the eagle coming. They were about 25 feet from the fish. He turned around just in time to see the eagle flying off with his fish. He just shrugged. I gave the eagle an A+.
Ben Franklin opposed making the Bald Eagle the national emblem. An excerpt from Franklin's Letter to His Daughter (Note that Ospreys used to be called Fish Hawks)
"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 Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
"With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. 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 . . .
"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage...."