Since 1782, the mighty Bald Eagle has been the national emblem for the United States of America. Long before that it represented, and still represents, a spiritual symbol for Native Americans. Now that our July 4 celebrations are over, I thought we should learn a little more about this spectacular bird that reminds us of independence.
Mature, not bald!
This probably comes as no surprise, but Bald Eagles (Haliateeus leucocephalus) are not bald. At maturity (which may not be until 5 years of age), their head is distinguished by white feathers. “Bald” was at one time used to describe a white head.
The scientific name (Haliateeus leucocephalus) comes from Greek and accurately translates to ‘sea eagle with white head’. Their white-feathered heads provide stark contrast to their brown body and wings.
Trouble from the start
The Bald Eagle almost wasn’t our national symbol. Benjamin Franklin was concerned about using an animal as a symbol of our new country that was at times a scavenger with thieving tendencies. “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our Country. He is a bird of bad moral character.” (Cornell Lab of Ornithology). Ben’s preference? The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).
Regardless, the Bald Eagle remained our national emblem and has inspired generations since. However, the road has been difficult for Bald Eagles and nearly ended in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Following decades of pesticide use (primarily DDT), hunting and habitat destruction, their numbers plummeted. In 1978, the bird was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This protection and a ban on DDT use in pesticides a couple of years later have resulted in a dramatic resurgence of Bald Eagles. In 2007, the Bald Eagle was removed from the Endangered Species list, although it remains protected as a Stewardship Species (a collaboration between the U.S. and Canada).
The Ohio Story
In Ohio, Bald Eagles were a common site in the 19th century but were rare sightings even in the 1920’s. In 1979, only 4 breeding pairs existed in the state. Last year, 190 active nests were surveyed across Ohio, the majority of them along the Lake Erie shoreline in northwest Ohio. However, viewing eagles in our neck of the woods is much more common. I have observed an eagle flying high over Jack Lambert Stadium at Crestwood High School during a track meet. I also watched one land in a tree 20 yards from me in the front yard of a house near the intersection of SR 82 and Chamberlain Rd. My son and I paddled under an eagle on the Cuyahoga River just downstream from the industrial buildings in downtown Mantua. There are nests and eagle activity in Tinker’s Creek State Park (Summit County), LaDue Reservoir (Geauga County), Headwaters Park (aka East Branch Reservoir, Geauga County), Grand River Wildlife Refuge (Trumbull County), Lake Rockwell (Portage County) to name a few. Another local area to see eagles is Sunny Lake Park in Aurora.
Bald Eagles, like most birds of prey, are subject to continued threats, including lead poisoning from fishing and hunters’ ammunition, collisions with vehicles and man-made structures, and habitat destruction of shorelines. Environmental pollution takes a heavy toll as well. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska killed an estimated 247 Bald Eagles. Fortunately, the local population rebounded to pre-spill levels by 1995.
The easiest way to distinguish a Bald Eagle from hawks while flying is their size. Bald Eagles dwarf all other raptors. It has a heavy body and large head with a long hooked bill that is yellow as an adult. While flying, Bald Eagles hold their broad wings flat like a board. Adult Bald Eagles have white heads and tails with dark brown bodies and wings. Their legs and bills are bright yellow. Immature birds have mostly dark heads and tails.
Bald Eagles are usually found near water. They are most abundant throughout the marshes and shoreline of Western Lake Erie. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge has 10 actives nests alone and Old Woman Creek National Estuary is a great place to see dozens of eagles congregate, particularly during the winter. Fish is their main food source, although they will hunt small mammals, gulls and waterfowl. They are happy to scavenge meals. Bald Eagles often go after other creatures’ catches, harassing Osprey and hawks until they drop their prey.
Eagles build massive nests and add to the nest year-after-year. It is typical to find eagle nests that measure 6 feet across and 4 feet tall. Both sexes are involved in gathering nesting materials but the female does most of the placement. Sticks are woven together with softer materials such as grass, moss or cornstalks filling in the cracks. The inside of the nest is lined with softer material including lichen, fine woody material, and downy feathers. Nests may take as long as three months to complete.
Many of us are old enough to remember the years in which Bald Eagles were absent from our skies. Fortunately, conservation efforts and environmental regulations have enabled this majestic flier to once again soar over Ohio and most of the lower 48 states. You may even see one fly over your neighborhood if you keep an eye to the sky.
Did you know…
Bald Eagles can live well into their 20’s in the wild. The record is 28 years. Bald Eagles are powerful fliers and immature eagles spend the first four years of their lives in exploration of vast territories, regularly flying hundreds of miles per day.