Since 1960s low point, bald eagle population is soaring

DAVE LARSON PHOTO. A bald eagle takes flight in 2020.

NEWBURYPORT – The raptor whose numbers had dwindled to just over 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states six decades ago is now a common sight to casual visitors – and eagle-eyed birders – in the Merrimack Valley.

The use of the pesticide DDT and rampant hunting devastated the bald eagle population in the early 1960s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said bald eagles, the national symbol that once teetered on the brink of extinction, have flourished in recent years, growing to more than 71,400 nesting pairs and an estimated 316,700 individual birds nationwide.

After decades of protection, including banning the pesticide DDT and placement of the eagle on the endangered species list in more than 40 states, the bald eagle population has continued to grow. The bald eagle was removed from the list of threatened or endangered species in 2007.

Dave Larson, a Mass Audubon ornithologist for 18 years, recalled the days when seeing a bald eagle was a rare event.

"If you go back to the DDT era, there probably weren't any in this state. There were maybe a few in New England, but all up in Maine. They were mostly wiped out in the lower 48," he said on Friday. Eagles were still thriving then in Alaska, but, Larson said, "they probably still had a bounty on eagles because they thought they had too many."

Today, participants in the annual Merrimack River Eagle Festival in February have a good chance of spotting bald eagles and other raptors, and people regularly report bald eagle sightings in Greater Newburyport.

Larson, a Bradford resident who is retiring from Mass Audubon on Wednesday, said there are at least four nesting pairs of bald eagles along the Merrimack River in Massachusetts and another nesting pair he knows about in Wakefield. 

"There are probably some I don't know about," he said, noting that he doesn't follow them as closely these days like he did "when they were novel."

"In terms of the eagle population, there are enormous numbers around in the winter because they will be driven south when it freezes farther up north," he said.

Bald eagles are "fish eagles" with fish being the largest part of their diet. So when the lake or river where they hunt freezes over, they travel south. "They need open water" to catch fish, he said.

Although a heavily wooded area at Maudslay State Park is marked with signs indicating it's an eagle nesting spot, Larson said those signs are more "hopeful" than a guarantee eagles are nesting there.

In terms of a good nesting location, he said Maudslay is "great habitat" with tall pines near the Merrimack, which is a good food source.

"They require a few things to successfully nest: a big tree so they can be up high; a line of sight to some body of water; and also have to have an opening in the tree where they can build the nest so they can have easy enough access.

"They're not very maneuverable" and often carry big sticks for nest building," he said. The idea nesting site is "usually on the edge of things – the edge of the water with a clean shot at it, or the edge of a grove of pines."

With the release of the national report on bald eagles by the Fish and Wildlife Service last week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, in her first public appearance since being sworn in two weeks ago, hailed the eagle's recovery and noted that the majestic, white-headed bird has always been considered sacred to Native American tribes and the United States generally.

“The strong return of this treasured bird reminds us of our nation’s shared resilience and the importance of being responsible stewards of our lands and waters that bind us together,'' said Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary.

“It is clear that the bald eagle population continues to thrive,'' Haaland said, calling the bird's recovery a “success story" that “is a testament to the enduring importance of the work of the Interior Department scientists and conservationists. This work could not have been done without teams of people collecting and analyzing decades’ worth of science ... accurately estimating the bald eagle population here in the United States.''

Martha Williams, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, called recovery of the bald eagle “one of the most remarkable conservation success stories of all time" and said she hopes all Americans get the chance to see a bald eagle in flight.

“They're magnificent to see,” she told the Associated Press.

To estimate the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and observers conducted aerial surveys over a two-year period in 2018 and 2019. The agency also worked with the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology to acquire information on areas that were not practical to fly over as part of aerial surveys.

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