(This 1209th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 25, 2014.)


Supper for an Eaglet

photo by Douglas Domedion


The eagle has returned.


No, I don't mean that the space capsule has again landed on the moon. Rather, I mean that the bald eagle has returned from near oblivion to become one of the primary raptors of this region.


Many people have visited the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge Cayuga Overlook on Route 77 to see the eagle nest in the distance, but few realize that there are many other eagles nesting in the region. Doug Domedion kindly drove me along the dikes of the Tonawanda and Oak Orchard state refuges to see two more of their huge nests. At each a stately eagle was perched.


Those were welcome sightings as forty years ago there were no breeding eagles in all of New York State.


The history of eagle populations in North America is an instructive lesson in our power, both positive and negative, over wildlife. Happily and unlike the history of the passenger pigeon, the current chapter of the eagle's story is uplifting.


In pre-Columbian times the bald eagle was without doubt a common species for by the mid-18th century one estimate placed their numbers in the lower 48 states at 300,000 to 500,000 and the species was even more common in British Columbia and Alaska.


Unfortunately people came to believe with no supporting evidence the old wives' tale that eagles carried off young sheep and even small children. Eagles were shot on sight. In Alaska a bounty was even enacted in 1917 and, as further evidence of how common they had been, over the next ten years 41,812 eagle bounties were paid. That $2 per eagle carcass was not repealed until 1952.


As a result eagle populations plummeted. Here in New York Elon Eaton wrote in 1919: The bald eagle "formerly nested in many places along the shores of Long Island, the Hudson, the Great Lakes, the central lakes, the Adirondack lakes and Lake Champlain, but constant persecution or the destruction of the nesting site has caused the abandonment of the majority of these localities, and 'the eagle tree,' or the place where it stood, is generally passing from the memory of the nearest inhabitants."


After World War II the pesticide DDT was added to the eagles' problems. It accumulated up the food chain to affect all top predators. Eagle eggs became so fragile that the brooding adult birds broke them. By the mid-1950s there were only 412 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states and by 1974 the bald eagle had been extirpated as a breeding species from New York.


But the tide was already turning. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protected eagles and additional fines were included in the 1940 federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Also, in 1972 DDT was banned. That same year the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the bald eagle an endangered species.


Positive action was initiated locally by Department of Environmental Conservation officer Peter Nye and Oak Orchard manager Dan Carroll. Eagles were hacked on the Oak Orchard refuge: that is, eaglets were imported, raised by refuge staff with the support of many volunteers and released when old enough to care for themselves. Similar programs statewide added 198 birds to the eagle population.


It is important to understand that simply releasing birds locally does not necessarily solve population problems. It takes five years for an eagle to mature and breed; over those years many die or leave the region. For comparison many barn owls have been released here with no resulting local population increase.


But clearly the eagle project contributed to the species' return. In the statewide breeding bird census of 1980-1985 there were 2 confirmed breeding pairs but by the 2000-2005 census there were 124. In 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from its endangered species list.


On our ride through those state preserves Doug and I also came upon many of the 13 local nests of that other eagle, the fish eagle or osprey. Carroll also sponsored a hacking program for them locally and their increase has been, if anything, even more spectacular than that of the bald eagle. Thus both eagles have returned to western New York with conservationists like Dan Carroll turning the tide against them.-- Gerry Rising