Fly like an Eagle: The Surge of an American Icon

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Note one: Unlike my other stories, none of the photos here were taken by me. I have noted sources of each.
Note two: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Report.

Along the Seekonk River, the wind sweeps bitterly cold air into the cloudy day. If it was chilly and breezy inland, it’s downright windy and freezing here. This is an urban landscape: there are power lines across the water, a sewage treatment plant is on the opposite shore, and highways are nearly close enough to hear. Yet even this spot is not devoid of winged wildlife. A peregrine falcon speeds by. A flock of a dozen or so Common Goldeneye ducks sweep down to the water.

Cars pull up on the road by the shore. One of the people climbing out is Dr. Peter Paton, ASRI board member and URI professor. He pulls on a barn coat against the cold, his binoculars already slung across his shoulders. “Well, I saw one juvenile the other day at Trustom, but I don’t know what we’ll see today,” he says, half apologetically. He walks toward the water’s edge, pausing instinctively for a moment to raise his field glasses in a quick survey. What he sees surprises even the seasoned ornithologist. “Hey, there’s one already – wait, there’s another one – holy cow, and there are three!” Instantly, Paton takes off at a run to climb a seven-foot stone wall to gain a better view. He needn’t have worried about the day not bearing fruit, for soaring over the Seekonk is the object of the trip: Haliaeetus leucocephalus, better known as the Bald Eagle. The bird that, until quite recently, teetered on the brink of extinction. The bird that, until only the past decade, had not been seen in Rhode Island. And yet, here they were.

The Long Road Home
“Here’s a bird with an immense distribution across the country when we virtually extirpated it.” Dr. Charles Clarkson, Adjunct Professor of Ecology at Salve Regina College and Roger Williams University and ASRI Board member is exploring what has brought a national symbol to where it is today. “We’re just now starting to pull ourselves back from that situation.” Clarkson says that it’s a misconception that Bald and Golden Eagles declined mostly from the use of the pesticide DDT. “While it played a rather important role (in the destruction), there’s much more to it than that.”

Clarkson says that there were about 100,000 eagles across America in the 1700’s. That number was in decline soon after because of habitat degradation, along with a developing salmon fishing industry. The great forests that dominated the American landscape vanished as the young country grew and flexed its muscles. “Habitat loss has been a precursor to every species decline on earth,” says Clarkson. “Loss of resources or actual aggressive degradation of food sources through DDT and lead poisoning from eagles feeding on carcasses of animals containing lead from bird shot did further damage. The insults came from multiple directions.” Some of the mainstays of the eagle diet, such as shore birds and ducks, began to dwindle because of overhunting. Then there was also another factor that, by today’s standards, seems unthinkable: hunting. “We’d allow farmers and fishermen to hunt these animals.”


U.S. Fish and Wildlife says that the eagle population dropped to an all-time low of 417 nesting pairs in 1963, even after enacting several laws to protect the eagle dating back as far as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1936. The use of DDT remained common until 1972, when the federal government banned it. In 1973, arguably the single most important element in the eagle recovery process became a law: the Endangered Species Act. Not only did the Act protect the raptors against hunting, it “reduced the threats to Bald Eagle habitat, including nesting sites and summer and winter roost sites,” according to Habitat protection, eagle restoration, and monitoring combined to bring Bald and Golden eagles to the point where the population, now climbing to an estimated 9,789 breeding pairs, was delisted in 2007.

Down by the Riverside
The eagles, all subadults, alternate between sweeping across the river and perching in a large dead tree. At one point, there are five in the same tree. “Gulls and eagles seem to coexist pretty easily in the same place,” Peter Paton says. “This is not their prime habitat. The adults may be searching for better grounds. The Connecticut River, for example, has about 100 eagles in winter.” (Note: since this story was written, multiple adults have been seen in different parts of Rhode Island.)

After a flurry of activity in the first half hour after arriving, Paton takes advantage of a lull to come down from the wall, gaining some protection from the bitter wind. A woman approaches and begins to chat about the eagle sightings. In a true Rhode Island moment, she introduces herself as Kari McDonald, an ASRI member and eagle enthusiast. “I’ve been coming down here for about 15 years looking for eagles, along with other birds,” she says. “It used to be that seeing an eagle was a pretty random event.” Paton asks about her luck these days. “Oh yes,” McDonald replies, “I get my Thanksgiving eagles, my January eagles. I get them quite a lot.” In the distance, a pair of duck hunters drift in a johnboat, causing McDonald concern. She heads to her car for a moment and returns with a camera setup that is hefty, to say the least. The price of bird addiction. “They better not bother those eagles.” There turns out to be no threat, though as the hunters eventually head off without firing a shot, despite Goldeneyes and other ducks flying around the area.

“Now that they’re making inroads around here, it will be interesting to see whether the eagles become a management concern,” Paton says. “These are large predators, so we’ll see how things go when they start preying on cormorants. They may impact other species as well.”

Managing an Icon
“Back when I got into birding, around 1981, we might have one Bald Eagle in winter. Sometimes we wouldn’t have any, so if you were a “lister”, and you heard of one in the state, you had to get out and see it right away.” DEM wildlife biologist Chris Raithel is comparing the extreme scarcity of bald eagles in Rhode Island to what is happening now. “It’s a big change, I’d say.” From 1880, when records of bird life in Rhode Island began to be maintained, until this century, “I’m pretty comfortable saying there were no nesting eagles.”

Today, Raithel says he’s certain of three nesting pairs in Rhode Island – possibly four. Ironically, though, the advent of nesting eagles causes him some anxiety. “When we had the irruption of Snowy Owls last year, we had some concerns about the attention they were getting by photographers subjecting them to stress.” Raithel explains that the single Bald Eagle nest most Rhode Islanders knew about on the Scituate Reservoir was uniquely situated. “It was on an island, so people could set up on the side of the road, watch them with scopes, but they couldn’t get near the nest.” The likelihood of more eagles nesting in Rhode Island means that unfavorable encounters between eagles and humans are more likely.

Although they have been delisted from the Endangered Species List, eagles are still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, originally created in 1940 and modified since. Among other things, the Act imparts severe penalties for disturbing eagle nests. Raithel says there have already been conflicts locally between private land owners and nesting eagles.




He recounts one story of eagles building a nest on private property. “At the time, the property was vacant, but there were already plans in place for intensive public land use – use that could have disturbed the eagles. The owner applied to the federal government for an exemption to the Act and received it. As more eagle nests start to pop up around the state, I guarantee you that issues like that will come up.” Raithel says he believes DEM’s role in future confrontations between birds and humans will be to act as a mediator between the land owner and the federal government. “We have local enforcement personnel that US Fish and Wildlife doesn’t. We’d like to have issues settled locally.
“If you have an eagle set up a nest on top of your house, it’s not necessarily good news.”

Choosing a Nesting Site
“Having these birds breed in state would be a real bonus in terms of the condition of the habitat,” Prof. Clarkson says. “It would mean that we’ve conserved the habitat well. They tend to shy away from fragmented habitat. They may approach (potential nesting) areas from three to four thousand feet and then they assess the nesting conditions from up there.” There was a nesting site in Scituate from roughly 2003 – 2007, but it remains to be seen whether eagles choose other sites.

Eagle nests may be up to ten feet across and, according to USFW, weigh up to 4,000 pounds. The birds, which mate for life, tend to return to the same sight year after year. The life expectancy of an eagle in the wild is roughly 30 years. Because they take five years to reach sexual maturity and acquire their distinctive plumage, subadults are often mistaken for Golden Eagles. “Juvenile sightings are a good thing year ‘round. They have no mate; they’re just exploring the territory. It’s good that these birds are exploring for long distances. That helps in maintaining genetic diversity.” Eagles prefer fresh water nesting sites, and are more prey specific during mating season, but they become generalists in the off season. “They’re more opportunistic.”

It’s difficult to tell where the juveniles in Rhode Island originated from, Clarkson says. Maine has the largest nesting population of baldies in New England, but Virginia also has a large population, and eagles are more than capable of covering either distance. “The technology to monitor them (and thereby determine a likely origin site) is a real challenge,” he explains. “It’s both very expensive and really labor intensive.”

A Record Morning
Throughout the morning by the river, the situation resembles a fishing trip: bursts of activity followed by stretches of quiet. Eagles, with a wingspan of over seven and a half feet, have flown overhead at treetop level. Some have made spectacular dives to grab fish out of the river, though there are more misses than hits. Kari McDonald pulls out a cell phone to show a web site with information on the color bands sometimes seen on eagles ( “I keep trying to see the numbers, but I haven’t been able to make them out yet,” she says.

At one point, Peter Paton counts six crows harassing a beleaguered eagle. “They’re all having a fit because a large raptor is in the area, but the eagles really won’t bother them,” he says.

By the time the outing concludes, Paton has counted nine separate eagles. “That’s the most I’ve ever seen in Rhode Island,” he says with a grin.
“This has been a really good morning.”


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