The Return of the Bald Eagle – a Perfect Way to Celebrate Earth Day
I can think of no better way to recognize Earth Day – today – than to explore our region’s success with the return of bald eagles.
When Earth Day began in 1970, the bald eagle had been reduced dramatically in numbers. They were only found nesting in parts of Florida, the Chesapeake Bay region, Maine and interior Michigan and Wisconsin. Bald eagles had last nested in Connecticut in the 1950s.
As of this writing, there are now six confirmed and active bald eagle nests within the 35 towns that comprise The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Five of the active nests are within Connecticut Heritage Corridor towns, and one nest is located within a Massachusetts Heritage Corridor town. Each of these nests now has hatchlings and the adult eagles will be busy bringing food to their ever-hungry and growing young.
Over the past ten years the State of Connecticut has seen an increase in active bald eagle territories from 15 in 2007 to 51 in 2016 – more than a threefold increase. In 2016 a total of 58 bald eagles chicks were reported.
Since 1992, Connecticut nests have produced 427 bald eagle chicks. The 2017 numbers will be available later in the year and we are hopeful for another successful nesting season.
How did this recovery happen? My go-to source for all things wildlife is the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protect and its helpful wildlife fact sheets. Here is information from the fact sheet on bald eagles.
The bald eagle went from being common in the early 1700s to extremely rare in the lower 48 states by the 1960s. This precipitous decline was due to loss of habitat and nesting trees, food contamination by pesticides, and illegal shooting. Contamination of food by the pesticide DDT is widely accepted as a major reason why populations of eagles, along with many other raptor species, declined in the mid-20th century. DDT accumulated in the food chain and, when contaminated food was ingested by eagles, it caused them to lay eggs with weakened shells that cracked when the birds incubated their eggs. Eagle populations across the country were decimated. General use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.
The bald eagle was first declared an endangered species with the passage of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973. Populations eventually began to recover due to the ban on DDT use, successful reintroduction programs of fostered chicks and fledglings, and habitat and nest protection measures. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified the bald eagle from endangered to threatened, in the lower 48 states. Populations continued to recover enough that, in 2007, the bald eagle was officially removed from the federal Endangered Species List.
Wintering eagles come to Connecticut looking for open water in which to feed when the land and waters in Maine and Canada are frozen. If harsh weather in Connecticut causes any open water to freeze over as well, the eagles continue to migrate farther south. Up to 100 eagles winter in Connecticut, from December to early March, along major rivers and at large reservoirs.
With a brilliant white head and tail and six-foot wingspan, adult bald eagles are hard to miss when flying over lakes and along rivers. It takes about five years for eagles to obtain their adult plumage and our region also has many immature eagles with grayish-brown feathers mixed with white splotches. Immature eagles are as large as the adults and range between 35-43 inches long and 8-14 pounds.
Both male and female bald eagles are similar in appearance, with the female being larger than the male. They can live up to 30 years in the wild and longer in captivity. Fish amount to about 75% of the eagle’s diet, with waterfowl, small mammals and carrion making up the balance.
Bald eagles will mate for life and usually return to the same nest each year. The nest is flat-topped with large twigs and branches and lined with softer vegetation like moss and grasses. It can be as wide as eight feet across and since it is added to each year, it can be very deep and massive.
Here in Connecticut the breeding season starts in the winter with repairs to the nest and mating in January and February. Eggs are laid by March and with a 34-36 day incubation time, hatching begins in April. The nesting period is usually about 12 weeks, so our local eagles should be fledging (flying from the nest) from June to July.
It is important to stay away from nesting areas to avoid disturbing the eagles. Nesting bald eagles are protected by federal and state laws and many of the nest sites are located on private property where no public access is allowed.
Of the six nests we have in The Last Green Valley, three are on isolated islands, perfect and private for rearing young, and all of the nests are on or very near a water source. With our many rivers, lakes, and ponds there is plenty of room for more eagles, and it is projected that we’ll have more eagles taking up residence in our region in the years ahead.
The river valleys of our region are again home to bald eagles. Our national symbol has returned to our skies. For me the bald eagle represents not just a symbol of our nation, but also exemplifies the opportunity that Earth Day represented 47 years ago.
This majestic and “keystone” species clearly embodies the success we can experience when we remember our fundamental human relationship with the environment – the environment we are ultimately responsible for.
We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me and so many others as we care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.
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