King of birds

After zooming into the most tiny in our first wildlife series, we continue with the most majestic. The bald eagle became the national emblem of the United States in 1782. It was estimated that back then at least 100,000 eagles were nesting across the country. Unfortunately the bird was nearly wiped out half a century ago. For many decades, bald eagles were hunted for sport and for the “protection” of fishing grounds. Numbers declined even further when deforestation reached its peak in the mid-1800s and when pesticides like DDT wreaked havoc on eagles and other birds. These chemicals collect in fish, which make up a big part of the eagle’s diet. They weakened the bird’s eggshells and drastically limited the ability to reproduce. Some of the eagles were even laying eggs with practically no shells. As a result, by the mid-1960s, bald eagle numbers had dropped below 500 nationwide, with NY state having only one known active bald eagle nest remaining.

Spotting our first bald eagle ever! April 4, 2020.

The population slowly started to recover thanks to the the Bald Eagle Protection Act, prohibiting the taking, possession and commerce of bald eagles, and the nationwide ban on DDT in 1972. Ambitious initiatives such as the New York’s Bald Eagle Restoration Project contributed to the success of the bird’s revival. Between 1976 and 1988, biologists imported 198 young birds from other states (mainly from Alaska) and hand reared them to independence, a process known as hacking. The hacked eagles thrived and returned to New York in the spring to nest and breed. One of these eaglets would make headlines as the oldest known banded eagle, when he sadly got hit by a vehicle in western New York in 2015. The eagle was banded in August 1977. By 1989, the hacking project was ended after it reached its goal of establishing 10 breeding pairs. The bald eagle was removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 2007. Today, more than 170 pairs of eagles nest in New York state.

To find a mate, bald eagles have a cartwheel courtship flight. Two bald eagles will fly up high, lock talons and then get into a cartwheel spin as they fall toward the ground, breaking apart at the last minute. Or, in rare cases, not breaking apart…

The Pepacton has at least one pair of nesting bald eagles since 1990. This past summer, at least two couples had a nest on the reservoir. According to the National Audubon Society, the area regularly hosts up to eight individual bald eagles during the winter. After sending the video on top of this post to the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation), I received the following reply from a wildlife manager:

Thank you for sharing your creative video! That is a mature (at least 5 year old) eagle and they are great creatures to observe. You’re lucky to live near the Pepacton Reservoir as there are at least a couple of nests on that body of water. So, there is a good chance that this bird is from one of those nesting pairs as they’re very territorial during the nesting season and do not tolerate ‘out of towners’ near their nest. This is the time of year that the young hatch (if they haven’t already) and will fledge (learn to fly) in roughly three months or so. Thanks again for sharing and enjoy your neighbors! Mike

Experts say that bald eagles have a “divorce rate” that’s less than 5 percent. And although they usually mate for life and look for other partners only if their mating partner dies, some more alternative forms of family constellation do exist. Have a look at these two dads and one mom raising their eaglets together!

Photo: Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge.

Bald eagle tidbits

  • The word bald in the eagle’s name comes from a word in Old English that means white headed.
  • A group of eagles has many collective nouns, including an “aerie”, “convocation”, “jubilee”, “soar”, and “tower” of eagles.
  • Bald eagles construct enormous nests known as aeries, some as wide as 10 feet (3 meters) and weighing 1,000 pounds (450 kg).
  • Bald eagles are a protected species and offenders risk a severe penalty under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act: a maximum of two years imprisonment and $250,000 fine for a felony conviction and six months imprisonment or $5,000 fine for a misdemeanor conviction. Fines double if the violator is an organization rather than an individual.


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