Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Bald eagles bring cheer as they carry on -- Dec. 30, 2021 column


The sun shone, the Potomac River reflected a cloudless blue sky and high in a tree were two majestic bald eagles.

They perched side by side on a leafless branch where eagles had nested for years along the George Washington Memorial Parkway a few miles north of Mount Vernon. The nest was gone, perhaps destroyed by heavy rain or wind, but on a bright post-Christmas morning this week, the eagles were back.

As my partner Keith and I took pictures, a passerby said: “There are George and Martha, watching over us.”

The sighting was a good omen made even better about 20 minutes later when we spotted two more bald eagles, or maybe the same ones, in wooded parkland by the river. Someone told us the eagles often hang out on a small island nearby.

The chance encounters with eagles and their admirers were cheerful moments at the end of a largely cheerless year.

Seeing bald eagles in the wild is no longer the miraculous event it was in the 1960s. Today, their presence delights us and is a welcome reminder America can do something right for the environment.  

After nearing extinction in 1963 with fewer than 500 nesting pairs remaining, the bald eagle population in 2019 was an estimated 316,700 individuals, including 71,400 nesting pairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported last year. The population had quadrupled since data were last collected in 2009.

“The bald eagle is an Endangered Species Act success story,” the service says on its website.

A species native to North America, the bald eagle was chosen our nation’s symbol in 1782. Benjamin Franklin famously was not a fan. He called the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character. It does not get its living honestly” but steals from other birds. 

While bald eagles eat mostly fish, waterfowl, small mammals and carrion, they got an undeserved reputation as preying on farm animals. Farmers shot many to protect their livestock. Eagles’ numbers also suffered from a loss of habitat.

Congress passed protection for the bald eagle in 1940, prohibiting killing, selling or possessing the raptor. It added protection for the golden eagle in 1962.

After World War II, the advent of DDT, a pesticide used to control mosquitoes, decimated the bald eagle population. The chemical washed into waterways and eagles ate contaminated fish with disastrous results. Eagles’ egg shells were so thin they broke during incubation. 

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, awoke many to the environmental dangers of pesticides.

The Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, and a ban on DDT gave bald eagles a second chance. The wildlife service and its partners stepped up captive breeding and reintroduction programs, law enforcement, habitat protection and land purchases.

The bald eagle’s remarkable comeback led to its removal from the endangered list in 2007. It remains protected by other measures.

Franklin and other founders could not have imagined that today we can watch eagles on 24-hour HD cameras trained on their nests. The closeups show us bald eagles aren’t actually bald. They have snowy white heads on charcoal-brown bodies.

Bald eagles usually mate for life and return to the same nests time and again.

But there was trouble at home this year between the National Arboretum’s bald eagles, Mr. President and First Lady, who first nested there in 2015 and fledged seven eaglets.

Cameras captured the drama in their nest 80-feet above the earth in a tulip poplar tree as interlopers started dropping in. First Lady tried to chase the females away.

“She would come in at 50 to 60 mph with the talons out,” Dan Rauch, wildlife biologist, told The Washington Post.  But she herself was displaced in February by a younger female who cozied up to Mr. President and stayed. It was 2021, wasn’t it?

Initially, the new female was known as V5, but she recently was given the name Lotus, for Lady of the United States. She and Mr. President mated last week.

So, as life continues in the eagles’ nests, we can all be grateful for the bald eagles’ recovery.  

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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