The eagle has returned. No, I don’t mean that the space capsule has again landed on the moon. Rather, I mean that the bald eagle has returned from near oblivion to become one of the primary raptors of this region.
Many people have visited the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge Cayuga Overlook on Route 77 to see the eagle nest in the distance, but few realize there are many other eagles nesting in the region. Doug Domedion drove me along the dikes of the Tonawanda and Oak Orchard state refuges to see two more of their huge nests. At each, a stately eagle was perched.
Those were welcome sightings because 40 years ago, there were no breeding eagles in all of New York State. The history of eagle populations in North America is an instructive lesson in our power, both positive and negative, over wildlife. Happily, the current chapter of the eagle’s story is uplifting.
The bald eagle was once a common species. In the mid-18th century, the lower 48 states had an estimated 300,000 to 500,000, and the species was even more common in British Columbia and Alaska.
Unfortunately, people came to believe, with no supporting evidence, the old wives’ tale that eagles carried off young sheep and even small children. Eagles were shot on sight. In Alaska, a bounty was even enacted in 1917, and over the next 10 years, 41,812 eagle bounties were paid. As a result, eagle populations plummeted.
After World War II, the pesticide DDT added to the eagles’ problems. It accumulated up the food chain to affect all top predators. Eagle eggs became so fragile that the brooding adult birds broke them. By the mid-1950s, there were only 412 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states and by 1974 the bald eagle had been extirpated as a breeding species from New York.
But the tide was already turning. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protected eagles, and additional fines were included in the 1940 federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. In 1972, DDT was banned and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the bald eagle an endangered species.
Positive action was initiated locally by Department of Environmental Conservation Officer Peter Nye and Oak Orchard Manager Dan Carroll. Eagles were hacked on the Oak Orchard refuge – that is, eaglets were imported, raised by refuge staff with the support of many volunteers and released when old enough to care for themselves. Similar programs statewide added 198 birds to the eagle population.
It is important to understand that simply releasing birds locally does not necessarily solve population problems. It takes five years for an eagle to mature and breed; over those years many die or leave the region. Many barn owls have been released here with no resulting local population increase.
But clearly the eagle project contributed to the species’ return. In the statewide breeding bird census of 1980-1985, there were two breeding pairs, and by the 2000-2005 census, there were 124. In 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from its endangered species list.
On our ride, Doug and I also came upon many of the 13 local nests of that other eagle, the fish eagle or osprey. Carroll also sponsored a hacking program for them locally and their increase has been even more spectacular than that of the bald eagle. Thus both eagles have returned to the area.