Raptor biologists at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary announced on Tuesday that in the three years following the removal of the Bald Eagle from the Endangered Species List, the bird is now more common and widespread than ever in the history of raptor conservation.
"Not only are we seeing more Bald Eagles than our great-grandparents," says Dr. Keith Bildstein, the Sanctuary's Director of Conservation Science, "but we're seeing twice as many. It's possibly the greatest wildlife success story of our time and an unmitigated success for raptor conservation."
The news is impressive considering the Bald Eagle's history as one of the most heavily persecuted of all North American raptors. Early colonists feared the large soaring bird would carry off livestock, and eagles were systematically shot on sight. The unreasonable fear inspired early American artists to depict eagles as evil and dangerous, drawing images of oversized birds that carried away children.
Strengthened by its negative image, direct persecution from hunters continued well into the early 20th Century causing populations to drop, and the addition of bounties made numbers plummet. For example, from 1917 to 1953 more than 125,000 eagle bounties ranging from 50 cents to $2 were paid in Alaska alone.
But the bird prevailed and went on to become the new nation's symbol of freedom and virtue, and with its recognition, received federal protection under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Thirty years later, it faced another potentially more fierce form of human threat: the widespread misuse of the pesticide DDT which caused eggshell thinning and breakage in its eggs. With insufficient numbers of young to replenish populations, numbers plummeted again, and in 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ranked the species as Endangered. In the wake of this onslaught, Bald Eagle counts at Hawk Mountain plummeted to a few dozen birds per year in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Fortunately the widespread use of DDT was banned in 1972 and by the early 1980s the numbers of Bald Eagles migrating past the Sanctuary began to increase. This remarkable increase continues even today. In 2002, the Bald Eagle Count at Hawk Mountain exceeded 200 for the first time, and would exceed 200 birds in six of the eight following years. With healthy populations restored, the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Bald Eagle from the Endangered Species List on June 28, 2007.
The next year, a record 255 Bald Eagles passed Hawk Mountain, and this year, more than 300 have already soared by with 57 days still left in annual count at Hawk Mountain.
"Here at Hawk Mountain, we monitor the movements of two populations of Bald Eagles: one whose numbers peak in mid-September, and one whose numbers peak in November. That means before the 2010 count ends we very well may record as many as 350 Bald Eagles. A remarkable recovery indeed." he says.
"In actuality the remarkable rebound in Bald Eagle numbers at Hawk Mountain and elsewhere in the United States represents a "double recovery," the first from direct persecution by shooting that occurred during the first half of the 20th Century, and second from pesticide poisoning during the middle of the 20th Century, making the rebound something of a double success."
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is the world's first refuge for birds of prey, and operates the first and longest-running migration hawk watch. The resulting data provides the most detailed record of raptor populations in the world. Rachel Carson used data from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary counts as evidence that bald eagle declines began coincidentally with the widespread use of DDT in the late 1940s and early 1950s in her conservation classic Silent Spring.
Hawk Mountain' mission is to conserve birds of prey worldwide by providing leadership in raptor conservation science and education, and by maintaining Hawk Mountain Sanctuary as a model observation, research and education facility. For more information on the Bald Eagle, or to download a free Bald Eagle Conservation Status Report, visit www.hawkmountain.org and click "Learn More About Raptors."