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Wildlife Wonders

Today is Bald Eagle Day

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was proposed in 1782, and officially adopted, as our national emblem in 1787.  A symbol of strength, courage and freedom the bald eagle was chosen for its majestic beauty and because it is native to North America.  There is a myth that Benjamin Franklin lobbied Congress to get the turkey approved as the national emblem.  Although this appears in children’s book, on environmental organizations websites, etc. there is no truth to this statement.  Eagles were used as a symbol of governmental power since Roman times and native people have always held the eagle with reverence serving as a spiritual symbol long before Europeans arrived in North America. 

In 1782, between 25,000 – 75,000 bald eagles were found in the lower 48 states alone.  By 1963, their numbers had fallen to 417 nesting pairs.  What happened?  Loss of habitat, view held that they were nothing more than vermin and shot on sight, and especially the use of the pesticide DDT all led to their demise.  Their recovery has been seen as a spectacular conservation success story.  The use of DDT was banned in 1972 and  the bald eagle was listed on the federal Endangered and Threatened Species list in 1973.  Connecticut’s first official Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern list was passed in 1992 and the bald eagle was then classified as an endangered species.  In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified the bald eagle from endangered to threatened.  In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal Endangered Species list, but still protected on the federal level by the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.  In 2010, the bald eagle was classified as threatened in CT.  In 1999, there were only two nesting areas active in the state with neither site being successful and no chicks produced.  Twenty years later, in 2019, there were 64 active territories with 45 successful nests and 81 chicks hatched.  Although still vulnerable to environmental pollution this is definitely a success story!

The bald eagle is a beautiful, majestic bird.  As an adult, 4-6 years, its head and tail feathers are white, not bald, in contrast to a chocolate-brown body.  Their hooked beak, legs and eyes are all yellow.  Their sharp talons are black.  Immature bald eagles are brown mottled with white splotches.  Their beak is brownish black. They will reach a height of 2 1/2 – 3 feet, wingspan to  5 /12 to 8 feet and weight of 7 to 14 pounds.  The females are 25% larger than the males.  In North America, only the condor is larger than the bald eagle. 

Bald eagles are monogamous, they mate for life, but if one dies they will look for another mate the following breeding season.  In Connecticut, they breed in January and lay eggs in February/March.  Both the male and female will build an amazing nest that is made out of  sticks woven together and measuring 7-8 feet across and 2-4 feet deep.  The shape depends on the supporting tree and can be built on the ground or up to 100 feet high in a tree.  They generally use the same nest year after year, adding to the nest each year, and some have been estimated to weigh up to 2 tons!  The eggs are incubated by both parents for about 35 days and also fed by both.  They are easily disturbed by human activity when feeding or nesting and may abandon the nest due to disturbances.  The hatchlings are covered in light gray down, their eyes are brown and legs pink. 

Bald eagles prefer to live near lakes and reservoirs with lots of fish and surrounded by forests, but can be seen near all types of water habitats including rivers and coastal areas.  Fifty-six percent of their diet consists of fish, but they are opportunistic predators and they will eat small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, waterfowl, and carrion.  They are frequently seen scavenging in landfills.  Consuming large amounts of food, they can digest it slowly and are able to survive fasting for several days to a week.  Unlike other birds of prey they cannot readily digest bones so they tear apart the food with their large bill instead of gulping it down whole. 

Except for breeding season they are often solitary, but have exhibited communal roosting at night for protection from wind and to more readily locate food sources.  Their migration patterns depend on their age, breeding location and food availability.  They usually migrate coastward or to open water to find food. 

For such a large bird they are amazingly skilled in flight.  Their wings are held fairly flat and they can fly at speeds up to 35-44 miles per hour and can dive at 100 mph.  During courtship, males and females often lock talons and fall to the earth, unlocking just before crashing to the earth.  They have been observed doing cartwheels and high speed chases.  When trying to steal food from an osprey they were seen turning upside down and grabbing fish from the osprey’s talons. 

An amazing bird that is a wonderful symbol of freedom, strength and courage.  “May you soar on eagle wings, high above the madness of the world.”  Jonathan Lockwood Huie


Just for Kids – Bald Eagle

Connecticut Wildlife Magazine July/August 2019 Bald Eagle Article – This Used to Be Easy

Bald Eagles in Connecticut

All About Birds – Bald Eagle

Eagles: The Kings of the Sky Free Documentary 28 minutes YouTube

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