Q&A about Bald Eagles with Peter Nye
New York Department of Environmental Conservation

Q. When did the bald eagle get on the endangered list? When did it get off?
A. On February 14, 1978, the bald eagle was federally listed as endangered in all of the lower 48 United States except Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan (it was classified as threatened in these states). The species was reclassified as threatened in the remaining states on August 11, 1995. Of course, the threatened status means that bald eagle populations are increasing, but have not increased to the point where they are out of danger.

Q. Why is the bald eagle our national bird?
A. It was selected as such by our continental congress in 1782 after considerable debate on the issue; Ben Franklin suggested the wild turkey might be an appropriate choice. I suspect that the beauty, power, grace and spirit of the eagle were qualities we wanted to adopt in our symbol.

Q. What is the Bald Eagle's biggest enemy?
A. Humans.

Q. What were eagles killed for?
A. Eagles used to be killed for many reasons; for fun, for the heck of it, for mounted trophies, and because people mistakingly thought eagles were taking too many fish and competing with human fishermen.

Q. What is the population of bald eagles in the United States.
A. As of spring 1997, about 5000 nesting pairs in the continental U.S., about 14000 birds in winter. In Alaska there are around 25,000 bald eagles.

Q. When you take the blood sample of eagles, what are you looking for?
A. Organochlorine contaminants such as PCB's and DDT and metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. The levels we find may indicate that these birds are eating contaminated prey and may have reproductive problems.

Q. Is it illegal to possess a bald eagles' feathers? If so, why?
A. Yes, eagles or any parts, unless you have a special federal and state permit to do so. The reason is that many eagles used to be killed for trophies and for their feet and feathers. Such unregulated killing can threaten populations of eagles and other species.

Q. If a bald eagle was released from captivity into the wild, could it survive?
A. That would depend upon how long the eagle had been in captivity and whether or not it was imprinted to eagles or to human beings. If one was recovered sick or injured and held in captivity so it could fully heal, even if that took up to 2 years, it would still likely be able to be released and survive.

Q. How did the eagle become the national symbol?
A. On 20 June, 1782, our Continental Congress adopted the bald eagle as our official national symbol, after much debate among the members. Thomas Jefferson jokingly suggested that the wild turkey should be chosen, but ultimately the symbolic power, strength and freedom associated with the bald eagle won out.

Q. What might be the reasons for the increase in eagle numbers?
During the winter months in Southern Ontario, waterfowl and Christmas Bird counts along the north shore of Lake Ontario are finding every increasing numbers of bald eagles.
A. Bald eagle populations are increasing rangewide, and have been since about 1980. Reproduction and survival are both up, since ddt was banned in 1972, humans are more aware of their actions and what might harm eagles, and fewer are being shot.

Q. Whom should I call if I find an injured bird?
A. You should call your state Wildlife or Conservation Department. Some states list their licensed wildlife rehabilitators on their web sites, as well as their contact numbers. Your local phone book should also list your local Conservation Dept. or Conservation Officer numbers.

Q. Do you think the Bald Eagle population will recover? By how much?
A. Absolutely! As of 1997, it has already been recovering for the past 10-15 years, largely in response to elimination of DDT from its environment; eagles are now breeding successfully and producing many chicks. The key now and in the future to the bald eagles survival (and to all plants and animals for that matter) will be to ensure that they have enough space (habitat) to fulfill their life functions. Humans must set aside enough land for eagles and the ecosystems which they depend upon to survive if we want to have them around in another 100 years for all of your grandchildren. Within the continental United States we currently have about 5000 nesting pairs; I would suspect we could get to 10,000 on the top end.

Q. In the past 10 years (since 1986), how has the population changed and have the causes of death changed?
A. Many more nesting pairs have been established over the past 10 years, thanks to active restoration programs in many states and to increased fledgings and survival. In NY we've seen about a 200% increase over the past 10 years; throughout the lower 48 states, the nesting poulation has probably increased about 20-30% in that time. Causes of death remain the same, almost all linked to human beings - habitat loss and alteration are the most important factors today.

Q. Is it wise or unwise to consider building nesting platforms for bald eagles? At Presqu'ile Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Ontario, sightings of adult and immature bald eagles are increasing eash year. There are historical records of bald eagles nesting in the area many years ago.
A. It is not necessarily premature, and you may well have eagles attemp to nest in your region within the next 5-10 years. However, unless you think there is an absence of suitable nesting trees, you are looking at quite a bit of work with little chance birds might accept it. Eagles are prone to accept a platform when they are already on territory at a given site, especially when the platform is to bolster or replace a nest in the same tree or very nearby. But, platforms seldom simply attract eagles that are not already there; they prefer to start their own. If you have any super canopy white pines at all, you mught consider "dressing up" a crothch to make it hold sticks better, then just seeding it with a few sticks to look attractive.

Q. Why are Bald Eagles considered the most important bird in America? They seem to receive lots of attention. What about smaller species of birds and concern for their well-being?
A. I don't know if bald eagles are "the most important bird in America", but you are right that they attract and receive much attention, likely due to their size and strength and freedom (see also above on how they were selected as our symbol). Don't confuse their popularity with the idea that smaller birds don't get any attention. The federal government, state governments, and many private conservation groups spend much time and money on hundreds of other bird species and even on invertebrate animal life in need of attention. All of this is part of our mission to understand and perpetuate the entire "biodiversity" of our planet, which is essential if humans are to survive. Contact your state fish and wildlife agency to ask what other species are getting attention in your state--you'll be surprised!!!

Q. What's the definition of "game birds"? We had a class discussion about the difference between the terms - raptors, game birds, endangered birds, etc.
A. "Game birds" get that name from the fact that they are typically birds that are hunted for sport by humans; examples are pheasants, grouse, turkeys, woodcock, and most waterfowl (ducks and geese). Raptors (birds of prey) are not hunted (legally), except occasionally for falconry. You folks are not far from some great eagle watching at the montezuma national wildlife refuge--you should check it out!

Q. How big are the radio collars?
A. We do not use "collars", as they are sometimes used on bears or wolves. We use what are called "backpacks." The packs sit squarely on the back of the eagle between the wings. Straps run around the front of the wings and under the wings and are sewn together at the eagle's breast. When the cotton thread we use rots, the whole package falls off the eagle. Each pack weighs 95 grams. I could tell you exactly how many ounces it is, but it is a good exercise for you to look up how many grams per ounce and figure this out yourself! Once you figure it out, find another object the same weight and put it in your hand. How does it feel, heavy or light? Under national bird banding/marking guidelines that biologists follow, any radio transmitters may not exceed 3 percent of the bird's body weight. Our eagles weigh, on average, 11 pounds. Figure out what percentage of the average weight the transmitter represents. Is it more or less than 3 percent? If you carried 3 percent of your body weight, how much would that be?

Q. How can we know that new chemicals aren't hurting eagles like DD2 did?
A. People (like me and other biologists, ecologists or land managers) are now very aware of and on the lookout for contaminants, in water, on land, and in a variety of prey species all the way up the food chain. For example in New York, we routinely collect unhatched eggs from nests during eaglet banding, and have them analyzed for contaminants. We also routinely collect and analyze prey (fish) and often collect blood from eaglets and adults when we have the opportunity. Thus we closely monitor what is going on in the environment so we are not surprised as we were by DDT in the 1970's.

Q. How did the bald eagle survive the DDT problem?
A. Fortunately, we discovered the DDT problem in the nick of time. A retired banker/eagle enthusiast from Canada, Mr. Charles Broley was one of the first to notice a problem of non-producing eagles in Florida, followed by a famous scientist named Rachel Carson who wrote an alarming book about DDT and its effects called Silent Spring (you should all read this book one day !). These "alarms" were sounded in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Fortunately, DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, and eagles (and other raptors such as peregrine falcons and ospreys) began successfully reproducing sometime after that. Active restoration programs helped accelerate the eagle's return. Fortunately today, eagles can once again breed successfully and raise plenty of young to keep the US population growing. From the eagles nadir (low point) in the early 1970's and late 1960's when fewer than 500 breeding pairs were known within the continental US, by 1998 over 6000 pairs were breeding in this area. The important thing for us to do now, is to make sure we keep enough suitable habitat around for all these eagles to use now and still when you all have kids of your own !! Due to the significant increase in bald eagles over the past 20 years, the federal government will soon be proposing to remove the bald eagle from the threatened species list.

Q. What chemicals other than DDT are now affecting bald eagles?
A. Several chemicals/compounds are a concern throughout the United States. Two metals, lead and mercury, as well as compounds known as PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls), are in our environments and we regularly screen for all of these. There are 209 "types" of PCB's called congeners, which we also look for in prey, blood and eggs. Lead is often picked up while eagles consume other prey with lead shot in them, such as waterfowl, geese, or sometimes in deer carcass'. PCB's and mercury are picked up through the food chain, mostly through/in fish. We are still concerned about, and still find DDT (and its breakdown products DDD and DDE) in eagle samples, even though it was banned nationally in 1972.

Lead can debilitate and kill eagles. Mercury can cause eggs not to hatch. PCB's can cause birth defects, and may reduce hatchability of eggs and/or survival of nestlings. Very high amounts could kill eagles directly.

Q: Has there ever been a tagged eagle that has been shot down by a hunter?
Yes, unfortunately. We have found many of the eagles we have banded and released dead due to gunshot, and last time I checked, that was one of the major causes of mortality we see (others include vehicular collisions and other trauma). We need to be careful of the use of that term "hunter" though. Although, technically, anyone pursuing a creature to kill or capture it is "hunting", the hunters we generally think of today are sportsman who are very concerned about all natural resources and are some of the first to insist on their protection. People who shoot eagles and hawks are definitely not the hunters I associate with the sport of hunting. Fortunately, we have come a long way in educating people about this and far fewer eagles are shot these days than 10-15 years ago (as of 2002). This is not a population-limiting factor, as much as it does anger me.

Q: Could 5th graders do a community service project to benefit bald eagles? Our school is located in Pella, Iowa. We have a large lake/dam (Lake Red Rock) that attracts and feeds bald eagles each winter. Any suggestions?
A: Lots of different ways to help eagles: Two things come immediately to mind in your case. One aspect would involve public education about eagles and their needs. Perhaps develop some signage or a pamphlet that explains something about the life history of the bald eagle, why it comes down to Iowa and your lake each winter, how important that lake and food source is to those same birds and their young each winter (based on knowledge we have learned about site-fidelity; you could cite your Journey North studies!) , and how people can enjoy/view them while at the same time protecting them. Your class could make up a pamphlet in conjunction with your local Town or Conservation people, get some local business or your school to print up a bunch, and get them distributed each winter at key sites around the lake. Here again, either your class/school or the Town/County could make some kiosks for such pamphlets, and even keep them stocked. In conjunction with this "educational" effort, I'm thinking it might be very important to identify and protect the most important areas around the lake that the birds use, and then post signs around these areas, protecting them from disturbance by people.

Second, I am not sure how large your lake is or how much is known, but it might also be very useful for your science class to run a "monitoring" program on the lake next winter. Set up a monitoring schedule with some students and parents or teachers with cars, where you observe the eagles, say once per week throughout the winter, to determine when they arrive, how many there are, and importantly, plot out their locations where they perch or roost around the lake. This information could be used to help protect your local birds and make sure they can return year after year to your lake. Don't forget to really investigate WHY eagles are coming to Lake Red Rock : which had to be FOOD. There must be a power plant, which maybe is putting out dead or dying fish ? What kind? Once you know that, what is happening with that particular fish population? Anything that could harm it? How would changes in operation of such a power plant affect your visiting eagles? What if they shut down the plant, or what if they installed a "trash-rack" which precluded entrainment (look it up!) of fish through the plant?

What if you state fisheries people introduced a predatory fish for anglers to catch, that potentially could wipe out or affect the fish population the eagles are using and need? It is important to not take anything for granted; question local officials and leaders (even your conservation people) to make sure they understand the needs of "your" eagles and are incorporating those needs into their thinking and planning. If you don't, maybe nobody will ! Maybe just do a winter of monitoring of your lake, put your findings into a letter to your state or county officials, and ask them specifically what conservation plans they have for your Red Rock Lake eagles to ensure they continue to use the lake and find it suitable habitat. Sorry to go on and on with this response, but, this is really a key question and need, which applies to ANY bald eagle habitat any of you know about and cherish anywhere in North America: what are these important habitats and what is being done for them? Are they "safe" ? Local oversight of such places is crucial; keep your eyes open and keep involved! The most important message we need to get accross to the "public" now, especially since eagles seem to be doing so well, is that we still need to identify their most important habitats, and protect these so that they remain available to them for use for many decades to come, even long after we are gone! Good luck!

Q: Why are some places designated as eagle areas and off-limits to humans? At Portland Power Plant in PA, there was a boat launch, walking trails, picnic tables, and plans for sports fields. A pair of eagles has eliminated the human portion of this area-half of a lake in NJ is off limits to humans due to an eagle nest. A large portion of Merril Creek, NJ is off limits for an eagle nest.
A: I understand it is difficult to lose some use of very limited areas. But, the fact is, the reason there is such special protection for bald eagles and other endangered species is that for far too long, humans were securely in place at the top of the food chain, and had their way with the planet’s wildlife and environment, leading to the crash of too many species and the loss of too many places, places which if still around today, could well be great human recreation use areas now. Basically, we now have to make up for our past, thoughtless actions.

Q. What caused the death of so many Bald Eagles last year (1996) in the U.S. during their winter migration?
A. This question is still being investigated, but evidence seems to be pointing to some sort of chemical contaminant or compound used to kill or treat other animals. I just received the quarterly report from the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) for the period from October through December 1996. It had the following on the bald eagle mortality event in Arkansas:

"A large scale bald eagle mortality event has occurred for the second time in three years in southwestern Arkansas. In early November, bald eagles and American coots were found sick and dead on De Gray Lake. From November through January, a total of 25 affected eagles were found on Lakes De Gray, Ouachita and Hamilton. In general, the birds were in good body condition with no gross lesions. All ages and both sexes were affected. The only abnormality noted in eagles and affected coots were microscopic changes in the white matter of the brain, described by NWHC pathologists and others as vacuolar myelinopathy. This is the same lesion noted in the 1994/1995 mortality event. Extensive diagnostic testing has ruled out bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases. It is most likely that the mortality is caused by a toxin, either manmade or naturally occurring. Comprehensive toxicology testing has not, as yet, revealed a cause for the deaths. This mortality event has been the focus of intensive diagnostic, research and field study. NWHC has been working with a multi agency task force on disease identification, management and prevention."


Peter E. Nye
New York State Dept. Environmental Conservation
Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources
Albany, NY