Tuesday, June 14, 2016

After DDT: The Return Of Bald Eagles

bald eagle the outsiderTo the delight of all who revel in the grace and beauty of nature, bald eagles are soaring above the Northeast in numbers unseen for over a century.

We’ve come a long way since the days when poor farming and logging practices denuded our forests, choking streams with silt and compromising the food chain.

We now know that if you degrade the eagle’s habitat and pollute the water you affect the entire web of life, including fish-eating birds in the skies above.

Human regard for wild animals has also changed. “In the 1800’s, it was not uncommon for eagles to be shot for stealing fish and chickens.” said John Buck, a wildlife biologist and Nongame Bird Project Leader for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife (VDFW).

Concern over the decline of bald eagles and other birds inspired the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was enacted by the U.S. and Canada in 1916. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 created even stronger protections, aiming to conserve migratory birds and preserve essential habitat.

However, eagle populations continued to decline. The use of DDT and other pesticides after World War II caused widespread nest failures from weakened eggshells and stunted embryonic development. In 1949, the last productive bald eagle nest in New Hampshire was recorded at Lake Umbagog.

According to Margaret Fowle, Conservation Biologist for Audubon Vermont, eagles never disappeared entirely from the Northeast, but fewer than 100 birds remained. By the mid-1970’s, nesting was limited to Maine and New York. In the early 1970s, New York State hosted just one remaining unproductive bald eagle nest on Hemlock Lake in Livingston County.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 1972 ban on DDT and passage of the Clean Water Act set the stage for the eagle’s rebound. More recently, the shoreline protection acts hope to reduce the negative impacts of construction on eagle habitat.

Starting in 1976, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to raise bald eagle chicks. During a process called “hacking,” they placed captive-bred eagle chicks in the nests of adult eagles in the wild, which then fostered the chicks. In 1982, Mass Audubon and the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife began another hacking program at the Quabbin Reservoir.

Between 2004 and 2008, 29 subadult eagles were released in Vermont during a collaborative effort between VDFW, National Wildlife Federation, USFWS, Outreach for Earth Stewardship and Central Vermont Public Service. “None of those birds appear to have settled in Vermont,” said Buck. “All of our nesting pairs are the result of population expansion from neighboring states.” Vermont’s first successful eagle nest was found in 2008 at the Springfield Reservoir.

New Hampshire Audubon has managed that state’s bald eagle project in collaboration with the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department and the USFWS. And said Chris Martin, Senior Biologist at New Hampshire Audubon, “TransCanada provided a significant grant that boosted bald eagle recovery efforts in New Hampshire and neighboring Vermont.”

Biologists and volunteers have studied and protected bald eagle populations for more than 35 years: counting numbers and nests, posting nesting and roosting sites, installing guards to thwart predators, and tracking individuals by banding and monitoring young. As a result, “New Hampshire’s breeding population has been doubling roughly every five years over the past 20 years,” said Martin. “Over-wintering populations have also been increasing steadily.”

In 2015 and 2016, during the annual Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey, record numbers of 90 or so eagles were recorded in New Hampshire (about 60 adults), with most spotted in the Lakes Region and along the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers. Vermont’s winter counts also spiked, with 81 eagles seen in 2015 and 59 in 2016, including around 30 adults, mostly near Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River. A similar success story can be told about New York State.

The bald eagle was removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007, but is still considered threatened in New Hampshire and endangered in Vermont. Eagles continue to be harmed by eating fish or carrion contaminated with lead from fishing tackle or ammunition as well as mercury from the environment, poisoned bait intended for other animals, electrocution from power lines, human disturbance at nest sites and by being hit by cars and trains as they feed on carrion.

“There’s a sense that since eagles are off the federal list, they’re doing well,” said Fowle. “But there’s still climate change and other threats. We need to be good stewards if we want to have them here for a long time.”

“Eagles are an environmental success story,” said Buck. “They’re imbedded in the folklore of this country. It’s magnificent to see a bald eagle. They are a beloved creature.”

Michael J. Caduto is an author, ecologist, and storyteller who lives in Reading, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, northernwoodlands.org, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

15 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    The Bald Eagle’s comeback has been indeed spectacular.

    However, I will note that there was at least one successful breeding pair in PA during the mid 70’s. The nest was at Geneva Marsh in Crawford Co.. I observed the nesting pair for a few years as I lived near there. They were the first Bald Eagles I had ever seen. Once, during a storm the large nest collapsed the tree it was in and the Game Commission replaced it with a platform nest on a pole. I can’t remember if the pair used the platform or another tree.

    Now I live between 2 active nests in the Champlain Valley! They are less than 10 miles apart. Now if we can just provide them with non-toxic fish. Unfortunately mercury poisoning is still a concern…

  2. Harold says:

    I remember seeing my first Bald Eagle along the mouth of the Ausable River as it empties into Champlain around 12 years ago. Since then I have seen dozens and practically every time I kayak in the ADK’s or along the Hudson we seem one. It’s an incredible comeback thanks to people and organizations highlighted in this article!

  3. Eagleye says:

    Indeed a great success story all around, But a correction needed on the technique we used to bring back the eagles. Article says: “During a process called “hacking,” they placed captive-bred eagle chicks in the nests of adult eagles in the wild, which then fostered the chicks” Not so.
    Hacking involved the hand-rearing of eaglets hidden from human exposure to the extent possible in the total absence of parent birds. For one simple reason: there weren’t parent birds to do this job!
    Pete Nye

  4. Steve Hall says:

    The number one killer of eagles today is the lead left in gut piles by hunters using lead ammunition. Lead bullets shatter and sent shards in all directions, up to twelve inches from the bullet’s path. Half the eagles we treat at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge come to us, suffering from lead poisoning, due to scavenging these gut piles, and eagles are just the tip of the iceberg, the “charismatic” poisoned scavengers. Virtually all carnivores and omnivores scavenge ungulate remains. This problem could easily be fixed by banning lead ammunition, just as we banned the use of lead in hunting waterfowl and in fishing tackle. The NRA…. naturally… opposes forcing hunters to switch to alternate ammo, such as copper, which doesn’t shatter, and is non-lethal when swallowed. California fixed this issue by banning lead ammunition outright. What is the symbol of the NRA? The bald eagle.

    • Boreas says:


      Very good point. Lead rifle ammunition doesn’t even need to be banned, just illegal to hunt with. It is a shame the NRA has been hijacked by zealots simply for political power. It used to be a reasonable organization.

    • Paul says:

      Steve, what kind of numbers are you talking about?

      I am a deer hunter and this makes me feel like I need to be doing something if this is a widespread issue. We don’t use lead shot on waterfowl for this reason but I have never heard of the “gut pile” issue. This also makes me wonder about the venison that I am eating?

      Is it even possible to have rifle ammunition that doesn’t contain lead?

      Tell us more.

      • Boreas says:


        This should give you a starting point:


        • Paul says:

          Thanks that makes me feel better. These copper bullets are the ones I am using. I thought that they had some lead component. I guess this is why bullets that used to cost 12 dollars a box are now approaching 40 or 50. Thanks again for the link.

          So how many birds are we talking about? They had no numbers either? How many is half the ones you get? This must effect other scavenging birds as well.

          • Boreas says:


            That I do not know. Specifically eagles? Probably not a lot. But keep in mind, few gut piles go to waste. Almost all of them are eaten by something, and as far as I know, all animals are susceptible to lead poisoning – a terrible death.

  5. John M. says:

    I was a teenager in the 60’s early 70’s and eagles were essentially a part of history. Fast forward to 2014 and I paddled the Connecticut River from near the Canadian border to Long Island Sound,about 400 miles. On this trip I saw Eagles (plural) (and Osprey every day of the trip. With a cleaner river there is a healthier river, more insects + more fish + more eagles and osprey among other benefits. There is still more to do , but things are definately looking up in my lifetime, hopefully my son can say the same in 50 years.

    • AG says:

      Agreed… There are now 4 known nesting pairs of eagles on Long Island itself. Of course they fight with and try to bully the ospreys – as seen on Shelter Island. But that’s the thing – at least the animals get to sort it out between themselves in a healthier environment than 60 years ago.

  6. Paul says:

    I saw three mature bald eagles together. The lake I grew up on had no Eagles and no loons when I was a kid. Now they are all over the place.

    We also have lots more bugs to deal with but you gotta take the bad with the good!

  7. Charlie S says:

    There are bald eagles all along the Hudson River. You’ll see them often flying over the eastern shore of that flow as you’re riding the Amtrak train to Penn Station. I saw one at Papscanee Island Nature Preserve south of Albany a few months ago. It flew off from a limb and out over the Hudson as Fish and I approached. Last October my niece and I were walking around Walden Pond in Concord, Mass when we came upon a bald eagle perched on a limb just twelve feet above us. It stayed put as I took photos. My niece was in awe as that was the first bald eagle she had ever seen. I found it odd that this bird did not fly away. I entertained the thought that the Thoreauvian spirit was still strong and ever-present in that area and this eagle was picking up on the vibes….it knew it was safe.

    • AG says:

      Yes – they are all the way down the Hudson (at least in winter). I’ve seen 4 flying over the Hudson over ice floats near Peekskill while on the train. I’ve seen one as far south as Riverdale in the West Bronx… That one had a fish in it’s talons. An amazing sight.

  8. Eagleye says:

    Folks are right-on bringing up the lead issue, an issue for both bald and golden eagles here as well as other scavenging raptors. It’s such a concern, many states and countries (California, Canada, many others) have already banned or partially banned lead ammo. Unfortunately, NYS had dragged its feet on this issue. Check out this latest video on the issue prepared by Delaware-Otsego Audubon:
    Pete Nye