By Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS)
With their distinctive white heads and powerful presence, bald eagles are arguably North America’s most recognizable bird. As predators and resourceful scavengers, bald eagles play a crucial role in balancing diverse ecosystems from coast to coast. Their presence helps control the numbers of fish, waterfowl and small mammals, preventing overpopulation and maintaining ecological balance. It’s difficult to imagine an American landscape without these iconic birds.
Bald eagles listed as endangered
In the mid-20th century, bald eagle populations faced a severe threat due to the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide with devastating consequences for the bird. DDT accumulated in the eagles’ bodies through the food chain. This led to thinner eggshells, which caused reproductive failure and a rapid decline in population. In response, the U.S. launched significant conservation efforts, banning DDT in 1972 and protecting bald eagles under the Endangered Species Act.
In 1978, bald eagles were listed as an endangered species in the lower 48 states, except for Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, where they were designated as threatened. Alaska remained the only state with a robust bald eagle population.
Bald eagle populations grow
Thanks to habitat preservation, captive breeding programs and public awareness campaigns bald eagle populations have remarkably recovered. In 1995, bald eagles in the lower 48 states recovered to the point where populations previously considered endangered could be reclassified to the less critical category of threatened. After continued recovery, bald eagles were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 2007.
Bald eagle recovery
Even as bald eagle populations rebound in many parts of their native range, wildlife rehabilitation centers frequently receive eagles in need of care. These eagles are injured, diseased, displaced or orphaned due to human activities. They’re brought to rehabilitators by caring individuals from all walks of life as well as agency officials. The most common threats facing individual eagles include lead and rodenticide poisoning, collisions with vehicles and structures, entanglements, nest disturbance and even illegal hunting.
PAWS Wildlife Center, in collaboration with other permitted facilities, is continuously adapting to counter these grave threats to eagle survival. The PAWS team admits an average of 15 bald eagles annually with numbers dramatically increasing in recent years. Most of these patients are injured adults that require intensive veterinary care and rehabilitation. The center also cares for orphaned nestling and fledgling eagles that need to be reunited with their parents or raised to adolescence by permitted rehabilitators. With much effort, skill, cooperation and luck, many bald eagles that are admitted to PAWS eventually return to the wild.
Bald eagle returns to the wild after rehabilitation
A recent PAWS case involved a young bald eagle that fell to the ground when its nest collapsed in the backyard of a Seattle home. Most raptors will continue feeding their offspring even after they begin to first leave the nest, but the suburban environment seemed to deter this eagle’s parents from providing such care. Concerned members of the public contacted PAWS Wildlife Center, and with guidance and assistance from trained staff, brought the downed youngster to the facility to be triaged.
The PAWS team first attempted to reunite the flightless nestling with its parents using a makeshift rooftop nest. But when this effort wasn’t successful, the team committed to raising the eagle for six months until it fledged and could hunt on its own. This lengthy rehabilitation process culminated in an epic release in early December, when eagles congregate around Washington state’s rivers to gorge on chum salmon.
Watch an upcoming episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild to see another PAWS success story. Get a sneak peek of the episode.
How you can help bald eagles
Anyone can contribute to the ongoing success of bald eagle conservation by supporting organizations dedicated to wildlife protection, promoting responsible pesticide use and advocating for the preservation of natural habitats. You can also participate in local community initiatives and educate others about the importance of eagle conservation.
If you have bald eagles in your area or find other wildlife that needs help, learn what to do if you find an injured animal.
Bald eagle facts
- Their scientific name is Haliaeetus leucocephalus.
- Adult wingspan ranges from 6 to 7 feet.
- They often reuse the same nest for many years, adding to it each breeding season. Nests can be over 12 feet deep, eight feet across, and weigh over one ton!
- They have exceptional eyesight, allowing them to spot prey from great distances. They can have 20/4 or 20/5 vision, meaning they can see four or five times farther than the average person. A bald eagle can spot prey the size of a rabbit three miles away!
The story of the bald eagle is one of resilience and successful conservation efforts. By understanding their ecological importance and actively participating in conservation initiatives, we can ensure these magnificent birds continue to soar across our nation’s skies.
Hickey, J. J. (1969). “DDT: A Review of Scientific and Economic Aspects of the Decision to Ban Its Use as a Pesticide.” Journal of Agricultural Economics Research, 21(2), 92-101.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2007). “Bald Eagle: Haliaeetus leucocephalus.” Species Profile. Retrieved from https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp0/profile/speciesProfile?spcode=B03D