Sarah Brockhoff, Tracie’s daughter, was out riding her horse across a cut hay field up in Dayton, PA (Armstrong County) when she saw a large, dark colored bird sitting on top of a woodchuck carcass. As Sarah got closer she could clearly see the bird’s yellow beak, yellow eyes, and bright white head: a bald eagle! (photo by T. Hissett (Wikimedia))The eagle lifted up as Sarah got closer and flew over and around her, but quickly returned to the carcass. Sarah was surprised that her horse was not at all perturbed by the eagle and surmised that this was not their first encounter!
I have had other reports of bald eagles lately. A former student, Alex Kiro, came across one while hiking up in the northwestern part of the state. He followed a raucous scolding of crows and found the eagle perched in a low tree (see Alex’s picture below, the crows are to the left and the eagle is in the center). Deborah and I saw bald eagles this summer along the Allegheny River both near Oakmont and Freeport, we have also heard them down on the Kiski River along the Roaring Run trail. We even saw one flying over our house in Apollo!
Bald eagles were once a relatively abundant species in North America. Prior to European colonization it is estimated that there were 500,000 bald eagles spread over 45 out of the lower 48 states of the United States. Every large river and lake had resident bald eagles. By the early 1960’s, though, there were only 450 nesting pairs of bald eagles left in the lower 48 states!
The decimation of this species was due to multiple factors: habitat destruction, human encroachment, hunting, and ultimately the impacts of environmental pollutants (especially pesticides) on their reproductive physiology. But legislation and vigorous protection (via the 1940 “Bald Eagle Act” and the designation of the bald eagle as an endangered species in 1967) has led to its resurgence. There are now over 7,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. In Pennsylvania there are 266 nesting pairs of bald eagles (compared to just 3 pairs 30 years ago!). So, we are much more likely to see bald eagles than we were just a few years ago!
For some people the image of our national symbol dining on carrion is distasteful, but these large birds (average weight is 14 pounds) need abundant, easily acquired sources of food to sustain themselves. Road kills and stream-side and field carcasses are highly available food sources for these resourceful birds.
Bald eagles reach sexual maturity at four or five years of age. They mate for life but will, if a mate dies, accept another mating partner. The mating flights of bald eagles in which the pair locks talons high overhead and tumbles and circles downward sometimes crashing all the way to the ground are a wonder that I hope to see one day. I will keep my eyes open here in “eagle country” this late winter and early spring to see if I can witness this amazing aerial dance.
Various “eagle cams” have been set up across the country allowing Internet viewers to watch the hatching, growing, and fledging of eaglets in their nests. Often these Internet observations end tragically with older siblings killing the younger, or with predators taking the eggs or nestlings, or with the death of a fledge in a flying accident or via a human related encounter. This record of fatalities, though, is a pretty reasonable reflection of the hazards facing young eagles in their very precarious world! Bald eagles, if they survive their first few months, can live up to thirty years in the wild. A pair can produce up to three eggs in a clutch but very rarely does more than one nestling survive to fledge.
Keep your eyes open, everyone! To quote J.R.R. Tolkien, “The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!”