Watching wildlife has always given me much satisfaction all my life. Even as a youngster, I was especially fascinated by birds of prey. Back then, it was possible to see a few hawks or owls here and there in this area, but the thought of seeing a bald eagle in the wild was almost as far-fetched having men from Mars land in the backyard. That is no longer the case, of course, and anyone who spends any amount of time outdoors in our region and hasn't seen a bald eagle probably isn't paying attention. For me, an eagle sighting is not only a special outdoor experience but also a testament to a great success story of wildlife conservation.
The bald eagle was adopted as our national symbol in the 1780s. At that time, as many as 100,000 mating pairs of eagles may have existed in what would eventually become the lower 48 states; by the 1960s there were less than 500 pairs. Many factors contributed to that regrettable decline.
Bald eagles feed mainly on fish and tend to live on or near large rivers and lakes. Increasing amounts of water pollution harmed the birds and killed off their food supplies. Increased development along our waterways deprived eagles of nesting and hunting sites. Improper use of certain pesticides such as DDT adversely affected many species of birds, including bald eagles. Most disgraceful is the fact that eagles were often shot indiscriminately until the 1940s.
When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, the bald eagle was charter species of the endangered species list. The last strongholds for our national bird back then existed in Alaska and parts of Canada. Pennsylvania began a bald eagle restoration program in 1983 when just three eagle nests remained in the state, all of them in Crawford County. Over the next seven years, 88 young eagles were caught in the wild in Saskatchewan and released at sites on the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County and the Delaware River in Pike County.
Pennsylvania's restoration efforts progressed slowly at first, producing eight active eagle nests by 1990. By 2000, however, that number had multiplied to 48, and just six years later, Pennsylvania was home for more than 100 eagle nests. So far this year, 206 bald eagle nests have been documented around the state in 51 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, including nests literally in the shadows of our two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This marks the second year that eagle nests have exceeded 200, with 217 eagle nest being reported in 2011. Crawford County leads the state with 21 eagle nests. In our region, Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County has been the most prolific incubator of bald eagles, with nests there producing more than 50 eagles in the past 20 years or so.
Many other states in the Northeast have experienced similar success with their own eagle restoration programs. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the federal endangered species list in 2007. The Game Commission, however, still classifies the bald eagle as a threatened species in Pennsylvania.
Bald eagles reach adulthood at four to five years, which is when they acquire their distinctive white head and tail. Younger birds are dark with patches of white on the body and the underside of the wings. Bald eagles are believed to live as long as 30 years in the wild, and a nesting pair of eagles in Pennsylvania was known to be 25 years old.
Weighing 8 to 14 pounds and having a wingspan of seven feet or more, a bald eagle in flight is an impressive creature, even at a distance. A turkey vulture is about the only other bird in our area that could easily be mistaken for a bald eagle. Vultures are somewhat smaller than eagles, but gauging the size of a distant, soaring bird tends to be difficult. A better identification key is that vultures hold their wings in a slight "V" shape when soaring, while a bald eagle will hold its wings perfectly straight.
If you are going to be around any of our lakes or rivers during the Fourth of July holiday, keep an eye out for a bald eagle. The sight of our national symbol soaring wild and free in the summer sky sure beats standing in a crowd watching fireworks any day as far as I'm concerned.