Thursday, May 20, 2021

Threats to the Long-Lived Bald Eagle

Eagle Facts

The bald eagle is a long-lived bird, with a lifespan in the wild of more than 30 years. Bald eagles mate for life, returning to nest in the general area (within 250 miles) from which they fledged. Once a pair selects a nesting territory, they use it for the rest of their lives. However, bald eagles face threats to their long lifespan and nesting territories due to a wide range of human impacts including habitat loss and plastic pollution. Plastics can find their way into eagle nests in the form of nest building materials, can be ingested through scavenging or through their prey, or cause entanglement leading to injury or death.

Together, we can all take steps in our everyday lives to help protect these majestic birds:

  • Dispose of fishing line appropriately. Improperly disposing of fishing line can lead to entanglement.
  • Dispose of bait containers and other plastic litter properly. These items can break down in the environment and be ingested by the prey that eagles consume.
  • Keep lids on any outdoor trash and recycling bins to prevent items from becoming litter.
  • Choose reusable items when possible—from reusable sandwich bags to straws, many fun and useful options are available to choose from!
  • Skip single-use items like utensils, napkins, and condiment packets when ordering takeout or having food delivered if you already have these things at home.

The photo shown here is an outstanding opportunity to see three bald eagles devouring their lunch, but even more fantastic of an opportunity to be able to learn there’s more to the story. DEC wildlife biologists noticed right away the eagle in the center was banded and contacted the National Bird Banding Laboratory to learn more. They discovered that the eagle was banded in June 1995—26 years ago—in Parishville, NY!

Photo of bald eagles by Bill Straite.

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Information attributed to NYSDEC is taken from press releases and news announcements from New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation.

7 Responses

  1. Marge Villanova says:

    This is just an awesome website! All of the articles are interesting! Thank you.

  2. Eagleye Nye says:

    While well intentioned, this short piece on “threats to the bald eagle”, misses (or intentionally avoids) the single most important continuing threat to our eagles (both bald and golden): lead poisoning. The use of lead ammunition has and continues to and kill birds of prey in New York and elsewhere who scavenge on animal carcasses tainted with lead fragments. Lead is a well-known toxic compound to both humans and wildlife, the regulation of which has been ignored by New York State and the DEC for far too long. A variety of wildlife are being lead-poisoned from ingestion of lead-tainted meat intentionally or accidentally left by hunters and then scavenged by non-target wildlife, particularly birds of prey including bald and golden eagles. There is no argument in the scientific community that wildlife are being lead-poisoned. As a wildlife biologist with NYS DEC for 38 years and as head of DEC’s Endangered Species Program (retired), I have witnessed countless bald and golden eagles, both dead and alive, confirmed to have been lead poisoned. While it is not commonplace to recover dead or injured eagles, DEC’s own data from its Wildlife Pathology Unit have confirmed an astounding 77 bald eagles diagnosed with lead poisoning since only 2000, representing a whopping 12% of all eagles examined. In addition, three much rarer golden eagles were similarly diagnosed since 2004. The Wildlife Pathology Unit has also diagnosed lead poisoning in turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks but has yet to compile complete information (K. Hynes, pers. Comm). I also know from personal experience that dozens of additional bald and golden eagles recovered alive but debilitated by NYS wildlife rehabilitators have been diagnosed with lead poisoning.
    Indeed, the extent of primary and secondary lead poisoning in fish and wildlife is so well recognized, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead shot for all waterfowl hunting in entire United States in 1991 due to poisoning of waterfowl and importantly, secondary poisoning of bald eagles. Similarly, small lead fishing sinkers and jigs (under one or one-half ounce) have been shown to cause lead poisoning in waterfowl including loons and at least five states, including New York, have banned the sale and use of such fishing weights. Restrictions and outright bans on the use of lead for hunting ammunition and fishing are increasing in the United States and worldwide each year. California has banned lead ammunition across the entire state. At least 15 other states have less wide-ranging restrictions.
    Non-toxic alternatives to lead ammunition and fishing tackle exist and are well-documented to perform as well or better than traditional lead. DEC’s own website and hunter-training courses provide good explanations of alternatives and benefits.
    The issue at hand is to “bite-the-bullet” (sorry for the pun) and finally move beyond the “voluntary” approach to embrace a ban on the use of lead ammunition in New York State, even if on an initial, limited basis beginning with our state wildlife management areas. While there may be a small minority objecting, it is my belief that the vast majority of New York hunters are true sportspeople and conservationists who support such clear science and direction and that they believe firmly in the protection of our wildlife (and human) resources. While a total statewide ban should be the goal, some small first steps could be taken. In this regard, I urge DEC to immediately implement such a non-toxic shot regulation on its own properties, beginning with State Wildlife Management Areas.

    • Boreas says:

      Thanks EagleEye. I assume the fatality numbers mentioned above are from necropsies on dead birds. It likely doesn’t include poisoned birds who are still living and suffering the effects of non-lethal lead levels. How many birds are out there that are only a fragment or sinker away from death?

    • Eagleye says:

      thanks for sharing that Patrick. Now if only enough folks would start calling/lobbying for this.

  3. geogymn says:

    Knowing people (Tom S.) that are involved with studying Golden Eagles has me convinced of the dangers of lead ammo. I have convinced other hunters to change over to non-lead ammo but ,despite the cost increase, the biggest complaint is the availability of said ammo.

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