On Monday I was taking a break from a long day of working at the computer. I moseyed outside and sat down on the porch to enjoy a few minutes of nice weather that finally (finally!) arrived. I suspect my going to the porch, where I haven’t spent more than 15 seconds since November other than to dash to and from a snow-covered car, was divine intervention. I needed a spring mood lift, and I sure got one.
Not five minutes after sitting down, something to the right caught my eye. It was like slow motion, turning my head to see. My mouth dropped open into a little circle of surprise…a bald eagle, fully-grown and in full flight, was drifting by. Two crows were tailing him, and in comparison they looked like inconsequential sparrows. The eagle was, quite simply, spectacular.
While I’ve seen bald eagles before, once many years ago in Idaho, and, interestingly, just recently on a trip to Florida, I have never seen one in my own hometown, and most certainly not 40 yards away in the middle of the village. I don’t think I could have been more surprised if a UFO had landed in the yard. To see this magnificent creature glide by my porch as though it was the most common thing in the world was stunning and fantastic. I’m still spinning.
Naturally, I dashed straight to Google. Here are some interesting facts:
- Bald eagles are not actually bald. The name derives from an older meaning of the word bald, which is “white-headed.”
- Sexually mature birds – 4 to 5 years old – build nests at the top of sturdy trees, and usually within 100 miles of where they themselves hatched. Nests are generally two feet deep and five feet wide. During mating season the female lays 1 to 3 eggs, which are cared for by both the male and the female. Bald eagles need privacy and quiet to breed, and they mate for life, until one of the pair dies. The average lifespan of bald eagles in the wild is around 20 years, with the oldest living to around 30.
- John Adams, along with others on a congressional committee that included Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, chose the bald eagle as the National Emblem of the United States, so designated on June 20, 1782. Ben Franklin, incidentally, wanted the National Emblem to be the wild turkey, but he was outvoted.
- Before Europeans crossed the pond, the bald eagle population was estimated to be between 300,000-500,000 in the continental United States. Those numbers began to decline with the influx of settlers. The eagle population saw a sharp reduction in the 1800s because they were either hunted for sport or because they were perceived as potential livestock and fishing ground predators.
- In 1918, the bald eagle received protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The birds began to replenish until after WWII, when the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides caused another drop in numbers. Eagles would eat DDT-poisoned prey, either making the birds sterile or leading to the laying of eggs with shells too thin to last through the incubation period. Other factors contributing to bald eagle population reductions in the 20th century were loss of suitable habitat due to human and predator intrusion, hunting and illegal shootings, power-line electrocution, and the negative effects of oil, lead, and mercury pollution. Our National Emblem, in large part thanks to us, was in trouble.
- In the 1970s, the bald eagle was placed on the endangered species list, and DDT was outlawed in the U.S. in 1972. Thanks to reintroduction efforts and successful reproduction in the wild, eagles started making a comeback. In 1999 there was a proposal to remove the bald eagle from the endangered list, and in 2007 the eagle was in fact removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the Lower 48 States.
- When Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin were deliberating between the turkey and the eagle as our national symbol, it is believed there were as many as 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in America (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). By the 1960s, that number dropped to fewer than 500 pairs. Today, eagle-nesting pairs are believed to number about 10,000.
This is a story of victory, which some believe is the product of environmental reform and proactive wildlife management. At this moment in time, no one more than I believes in this triumph, and in the idea that we can accomplish great things when smart people come together and commit to what others may deem impossible.
Our country – and our world – are in such turmoil these days that I find myself squinting every time I turn on the TV, bracing for more bad news. But not this day. This day I'm thinking about sitting on a sunny porch in April and how my spirits soared when I saw that glorious bird rising over the trees, healthy and beautiful when not so long ago he and his kind were nearly gone from the planet. We humans did that, came close to obliterating a species because of stupidity and carelessness. Then we humans got together and made a change. We saw the error of our ways and altered course. It gives you hope, doesn't it? If the bald eagle can make a comeback, so can we.