By MARSHA MERCER
In the 1960s, anyone who saw a bald eagle soar across the sky felt lucky indeed.
The population of bald eagles had dwindled in 1963 to about 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Our national symbol since 1782 was on a fast track to oblivion.
More than 50 years later, though, seeing eagles in the wild is a delight -- but no longer a miracle. Thanks to public support and laws protecting eagles, something like 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles survive in the wild in the continental United States.
More than 200 pairs of bald eagles were seen along the James River in Virginia in 2013, the Center for Conservation Biology said after an aerial survey.
In Alabama, January surveys for several years have found an average of 100 to 150 bald eagles, with concentrations on Pickwick Lake near Waterloo and Guntersville Lake near Guntersville State Park, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said last year.
Our forebears couldn’t have imagined our live, 24-hour viewing access to the family life of eagles. “Eagle cams” trained on nests around the country are Internet favorites.
This spring, one bald eagle couple – named “Mr. President” and “The First Lady” – and their offspring have captured imaginations.
Two HD cameras closely observe the eagles’ nest 95 feet above the earth in a tulip poplar tree at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington. The nest has had more than 9 million views in the project by American Eagle Foundation, a nonprofit in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Arboretum.
The First Lady produced two eggs, and the eaglets hatched on March 18 and 20. Mom tidies and sits on the ample nest, keeping the babies safe. Dad flies home with a fat fish or tasty squirrel for supper. Two adorable eaglet heads pop up to accept morsels from a parent’s yellow beak. Bald eagles aren’t actually bald. They have snowy white heads on charcoal-brown bodies.
It’s mesmerizing to watch when something happens -- and even when it doesn’t.
Sometimes, when The First Lady sits on the nest, you’re sure your screen must be frozen. Look again: Her head is turning. You are experiencing the slow time of nature.
“If you have high blood pressure, just watch the eagle cam and feel your stress go away,” a friend told me.
There is a warning for tender-hearted humans, however, on eagles.org:
“This is a wild eagle nest and anything can happen…Things like sibling rivalry, predators and natural disasters can affect this eagle family and may be hard to watch.”
Eagles mate for life, and the same pair nested last year in the same tree in the Arboretum’s Azalea Collection, and sent one eaglet into the world. They are the first eagles to nest in the area since 1947.
The return of the bald eagle is one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, and the ban on DDT, which we used widely in our war on weeds after World War II. Its use weakened shells of the eggs of eagles and other birds, with disastrous results.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” alerted us to the dangers of chemical pesticides in 1962. The title refers to a nameless American town in the future in which birdsong and other creature sounds are absent because of pollution.
Bald eagles’ remarkable comeback led to their removal from the endangered list in 2007. They remain protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act.
Still, eagles need all our help. Last month, 13 bald eagles were found dead in Federalsburg, Md. State and federal officials are investigating the deaths and a $25,000 reward is offered. A few days later, five more bald eagles were found dead in Delaware.
Bald eagles also may need protection from glib politicians.
Ted Cruz, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has said: “One of the worst things that can happen to a species is to be listed on the Endangered Species Act. If it gets listed it’s almost certain to become endangered.”
Several fact-check organizations called Cruz off base. The law has recovered some species and for others it represents hope for survival. Just ask Mr. President and The First Lady.
(C) 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.