Bald Eagle: Back from the brink

As far as birds go, there is none more iconic in the United States than the bald eagle. Known as a symbol of freedom, grace, and perseverance, America’s national bird can be seen regularly in most parts of the country; but this wasn’t always the case. Not too long ago, the Bald Eagle was critically endangered and at serious risk of becoming extinct. This is the story of how this regal raptor came back from the brink.

What led to the Bald Eagle’s Decline?

In North America, eagles have always been associated with positive traits. So much so, that in 1782, the Bald Eagle was adopted as a National Symbol of the United States. Even with this bird being a national icon, at this time in history, there was a lot of misinformation about their habits and lifestyle. We now know that this species feeds mostly on fish and carrion, but at earlier eras there was a wide held belief that eagles were a threat to medium sized livestock and even children. As a result, many Bald Eagles were hunted by landowners fearful of losing animals to the large birds. In addition, much of the bald eagles natural prey was also on the decline due to hunting and habitat loss. However, hunting and habitat loss were not the only factors leading to the bald eagle’s decline.

Serious trouble came in the form of a new pesticide called DDT. After World War II, DDT was commonly used to eliminate insect pests such as mosquitos but caused a lot of collateral damage. The chemical would then wash into waterways, fouling entire waterways, including the things that lived in that water. This meant that fish and other animals that Bald Eagles feed on were not only scarcer due to hunting and habitat loss, but also contaminated with toxins. Eagles would consume the contaminated fish and absorb the DDT into their bodies. While DDT wasn’t fatal to the adult Eagles, it was the bird’s eggs that were most adversely effected. The ingestion and absorption of DDT by the adult birds led to the inability to produce strong eggs. As a result, many Bald Eagle eggs were crushed or cracked during incubation leading to a grave amount of unsuccessful broods.

Due to a combination of chemical poisoning, hunting, and habitat destruction, the Bald Eagle was quickly approaching the point of extinction. In 1963, there were a mere 487 breeding pairs left in the lower 48 states.

What led to the Bald Eagle’s comeback?

Recognizing that the Bald Eagle was losing its battle against extinction, the US government stepped in to try and aid in its plight. In 1972 DDT was banned in large part to its negative impact of wildlife (particularly birds), and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act was created. The endangered species prevented habitat destruction as well as the harassment or killing of any species deemed endangered. These steps in addition to reintroduction, nest monitoring projects, and water quality improvement put the Bald Eagle on a pathway to move out of the precarious place they were in as a species.

How is the Bald Eagle doing today?

In the following decades, the Bald Eagle’s numbers began climbing. In 1995 they were moved from the endangered species list and designated as threatened. Twelve years later The Bald Eagle was officially completely delisted on June 28th 2007. Now, over 70,000 pairs of Bald Eagles live in the lower 48 states and the species as a whole is listed as a species of “least concern.”

The Bald Eagle is one of America’s greatest conservation success stories. With a very stable population of this species in the wild today, this regal national symbol will continue to soar the skies of American for generations to come. Hopefully more success stories like the Bald Eagle will emerge in the ecological war against extinction, and we will get to discuss more birds that have come back from the brink

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