Bald Eagles Thriving Throughout Pennsylvania

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Still Going Strong: Bald eagles, like this bird at the Game Commission's Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, have really expanded their nesting range in the state in recent years.  -  Credit: Joe Kosack/PGC PhotoHARRISBURG – The bald eagle continues to supplant its recent – and remarkable – nesting successes with new records, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. And from all indications, this raptor isn’t done making headlines.

“The bald eagle’s ascension from its perilous past is an inspiration to all who care about environmental reform and wild Pennsylvania,” explained Game Commission Executive Director Carl G. Roe. “These birds are living proof that responsible natural resource management and conservation make Pennsylvania a better place to live and ensure wildlife will be around for future generations to enjoy.

“It’s fitting that news about the continuing triumphs of bald eagles have graced our headlines over the Fourth of July for the past several years. As our nation’s symbol, their presence is essential in America’s outdoors. They immediately add a touch of class and true wilderness to any area they inhabit, whether it’s on the outskirts of Philadelphia or a remote stretch of the Lake Erie shoreline.”

This spring, bald eagles are known to be nesting in at least 47 of the state’s 67 counties. Their tally of nests is expected to exceed 140 nests. In June 2007, biologists estimated Pennsylvania had 120 known nests in 42 counties. The final count of those nests turned out to be 132, and they produced more than 150 eaglets.

As recently as 1983, there were only three eagle nests remaining in Pennsylvania. That year, the Game Commission began a seven-year bald eagle reintroduction program in which the agency sent employees to Saskatchewan to obtain eaglets from wilderness nests. The Richard King Mellon Foundation of Pittsburgh and the federal Endangered Species Fund provided financial assistance for this effort. In all, 88 Canadian bald eagles were released from sites located at Dauphin County’s Haldeman Island and Pike County’s Shohola Falls.

They're Everywhere!: Bald eagles now nest in every one of the lower 48 states and 47 of the state's 67 counties.   -  Credit: Hal Korber/PGC Photo“What’s so exciting about the bald eagle’s return is that each year they’re nesting in more counties, strengthening their population in Pennsylvania and giving more residents the chance to enjoy these magnificent birds,” Roe said. “Their presence is stronger than ever and it doesn’t appear that they’re close to being done claiming new nesting territories in the Commonwealth. Who knows, maybe your county will be the next to host eagles.”

Bald eagles have symbolized America’s greatness for centuries and now they’ve become America’s latest success story in wildlife management and environmental reform. But their comeback in Pennsylvania took time, because their population had been decimated.

Partnering with other states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and countless other state wildlife agencies, the Game Commission helped to bring bald eagles back from the brink of extinction. The effort dovetailed with important gains made in improving water quality and the banning of pesticides such as DDT, which led a cleaner environment and increases in the quality and quantity of freshwater fish, a staple in the eagle’s diet. Pennsylvania’s eagle resurgence also was likely stimulated by young eagles dispersing from the Chesapeake Bay, which now has hundreds of nesting pairs, and neighboring states that reintroduced eagles, too.

The Game Commission currently classifies the bald eagle as a threatened species in Pennsylvania. They are no longer protected by the federal Endangered Species Act – delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 – because delisting goals have been achieved. However, bald eagles continue to receive federal protection under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which safeguard the birds from their nests disturbances and destruction.

Today, bald eagles are nesting in every state but Hawaii, which they never inhabited. The lower 48 states have a nesting population that is approaching 10,000 pairs, which is up considerably from the little more than 400 pairs America had in 1963.

“What’s happening in Pennsylvania is also happening in many other states,” noted Doug Gross, Game Commission ornithologist. “Bald eagles are thriving in Ohio and New York, and, of course, in Maryland, where more than 400 pairs have been documented.  Some states with extensive big-water resources, such as Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have more than a 1,000 pairs each.

“Pennsylvania is no slouch when it comes to big water and that’s why we believe bald eagles will continue to build more nests near large impoundments and rivers where no eagles are present currently or there’s room for another pair. New nests in Pennsylvania also are popping up in places that have surprised us, like in suburban settings close to buildings or near high-use recreational areas.

“It seems bald eagles have become more tolerant of people when selecting nest locations, but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable with people approaching their nests. It remains critically important for people to stay a considerable distance away, preferably at least 1,000 feet. It’s also against the law to disturb nesting eagles. Get a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope to watch the nest or observe them in flight. Just please stay back and give them some room.  Avoid making loud noises or approaching the nest directly or from above.”

Fresh Fish!: Bald eagles are great anglers, or pouncers, as this carp found out in northwestern Pennsylvania's pothole country  -  Credit: Jake Dingel/PGC PhotoSince 1983, Pennsylvania’s eagle nests have produced more than 1,100 eaglets, and the population has increased by about 15 percent annually. The heaviest production, of course, has occurred in recent years. Eagle nesting success has been 70 percent or greater for some time. Poor weather conditions have the greatest impact on nesting success, followed by nest intrusions and predators, but as more eagles nest instate and competition for prime nesting sites increases, eagle nesting success eventually may level off or drop.

“There’s still plenty of new or sparsely-used territory for nesting pairs in the Commonwealth,” noted Gross. “Some of the best remaining includes the Susquehanna’s north and west branches, the Juniata River and the Lake Erie shoreline. There also are of a number of large lakes and impoundments scattered across the state with more than adequate fisheries and no eagles.”

The state’s largest concentrations of eagle nests remain along the lower Susquehanna River, the upper Delaware River basin and the wetland-dominated Pymatuning region in northwestern Pennsylvania. The area still best known for nesting bald eagles remains the state’s northwestern counties.

“I am surprised more eagles haven’t claimed the various impoundments and free-flowing rivers of our southwestern counties,” Gross said. “Maybe we’re missing nests. Maybe it’s because these counties historically have not attracted eagles. But the resources nesting eagles need are there. This irregularity may be related to the lack of a strong source population for eagles to disperse from. Young eagles dispersing from the state’s established nesting centers, or the Chesapeake Bay, would be hard pressed to end up in southwestern counties following flowing water or riding wind currents.”

Clearfield, Cumberland, Delaware, Juniata and Perry counties have recorded their first bald eagle nests this year.  New bald eagle nests also were found in Armstrong, Bucks, Bradford, Butler, Erie, Forest, Lycoming, Northumberland, Mercer, Pike, Tioga, Warren, Wayne and Wyoming counties.

The Game Commission is always interested in reports from the public about new nests and news about bald eagle nests.

“The increased use of rivers and lakes at this time of year by the boating public has yielded new nests to our inventory in recent years,” Gross noted. “If you encounter a nest, give the birds some elbow room, take some notes on the location and the eagles’ behavior, and drop us an email about the specifics. Remember, we cannot protect a nest unless we know about it.”

Emails can be sent to biologists via: pgccomments [at] state [dot] pa [dot] us. Use the words “Eagle Nest Information” in the subject field.

The return of the bald eagle in both Pennsylvania and the contiguous United States is directly related to reintroductions and nest site protection. But, the bird’s resurgence is linked directly to the banning of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides. Eagles, as well as ospreys, peregrine falcons and a multitude of songbirds, were rendered reproductively incapable by DDT and the like, because the birds were bio-accumulating toxins from the pesticides through consuming contaminated prey. DDT – banned nationally in 1972 – rendered the shells of birds’ eggs so brittle, they broke when sat upon.

Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings.” She referred to the interdependencies – that often aren’t easy to identify or interpret – of organisms on each other and the environment. When America was sprayed and dusted repeatedly and for decades with DDT, the environment was slowly loaded with toxins that eventually devastated bald eagles and many other creatures that had thrived for centuries. Without emergency and sustained special assistance from wildlife conservation agencies, bald eagles would have perished.