By Jim Pfiffer, Chemung River Friends Volunteer.
It’s common to see bald eagles while paddling on or walking along the Chemung River. For many people, it’s their first eagle sighting, and a rare and memorable moment in their lives.
Those eagle sightings are becoming more common as more of the majestic raptors hunt, nest, and reproduce along the 45-mile river. It’s part of a national trend that has seen the number of American bald eagles quadruple since 2009 thanks to anti-pollution laws and a public effort to protect our national bird, after it nearly became extinct in the 1970s.
Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the birds, which are only found in North America, are flourishing. There are now more than 71,400 nesting pairs and about 316,700 total birds. Many of the bald eagles in New York and Pennsylvania are the offspring of bald eagles that were captured in Alaska more than 30 years ago and released in those two states.
There have been nesting pairs of bald eagles on the Chemung River for more than 15 years. Their numbers have steadily grown as their offspring nest here, along with eagles from farther away. Ten years ago, it was a rare treat to spy one of the birds on the river. Today, we see more of them on the river and near other bodies of water.
That’s a good sign that the environment is safe and clean. Eagles, and most other birds of prey, are at the top of the food chain. That means all the links in the chain – insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and other animals are also healthy and thriving.
Our nation’s mascot was nearly wiped out in the 1960s and ‘70s due to the pesticide DDT, so they were put on the endangered species list. Banning DDT, the federal Clean Water Act and habitat protection saved the birds, they made a resurgence and were removed from the endangered list in 2007.
It can be an exciting and moving experience – I call it one of “nature’s blessings” — to watch a bald eagle soar, snag a fish from the water with its powerful talons, or sit still and proud on a tree-top branch warming its black plumage in the morning sun.
The eagle represents America. It rules its kingdom in the sky. It’s a symbol of power, pride, and confidence. It’s a good feeling to see the bird thriving and to know that it’s making a comeback, in part, because more people realize the birds’ value and the importance of protecting their habitat.
But not all people share the same values. There are still fools who want to harass, capture, or hunt bald eagles, even though all those practices are illegal. That’s why I won’t give out details about the location of the birds’ nests (called aeries) or their common roosting spots.
As the eagles become more accustomed to humans, they become less wary when people approach. Years ago, when I saw bald eagles on the river, they always stayed about 20 yards ahead, flying downstream from tree to tree, as we paddled toward them. Today I can paddle my kayak directly under a tree where an eagle is sitting. That’s not a safe bird behavior when bad people want to harm the birds.
Next time you are near the river put on your eagle eyes, and if you’re lucky you’ll spot one of these magnificent birds. They are not hard to spot as they can be up to 4 feet tall, weigh up to 14 pounds and boast a 7-foot wingspan.
When you see one, enjoy it, and remember the role you play in assuring that these kings of the sky have a safe and healthy environment.
Bald eagle facts:
- They are carnivores and eat smaller birds, other bird’s eggs, and small animals like rabbits, reptiles, amphibians and crabs.
- “Bald” is an old-English word meaning “white.”
- A young eagle has a dark colored head that doesn’t turn white until it is about 5 years old.
- The usually live in forests near rivers, lakes, reservoirs, marshes, and coasts. Some live near dumps and other areas where they can find food. The Chemung County Landfill offers a bird buffet for the many bald eagles that feed their daily.
- While eagles can catch their prey, they more often will dine on carrion, or steal a catch from another animal.
- They lay one to three eggs that hatch in 34 to 36 days, and the chicks are covered in light-gray down.