The Bald Eagle in Alabama
The bald eagle, the consummate symbol of wildlife, is truly a beautiful and majestic bird. It occurs only in North America, ranging over most of the continent. In the fall, there is an influx of bald eagles into Alabama from northern states and Canada. These migrants spend the winter in Alabama enjoying more moderate temperatures and ice-free waters before returning north in the spring. Due to restoration efforts by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program, populations have increased and now nest in the state. When the Bald Eagle Restoration Project began in 1984, bald eagles had not nested in Alabama since 1949. Once in danger of extinction, our national emblem has made a tremendous comeback across the nation. Alabama made significant contributions to this comeback.
The adults have a gleaming white head and tail, which contrasts against their dark body feathers. This striking characteristic, along with their bright yellow bill, does not develop until they reach sexual maturity at about five years of age. The adult female has a wing span of almost eight feet and may weigh as much as fourteen pounds and stand forty-two inches tall. The adult males are slightly smaller. Immature bald eagles, lacking the white head and tail feathers, are often misidentified as a golden eagle. However, the golden eagle has a lifestyle more similar to some hawks and is not usually found near large bodies of water like the bald eagle.
In Alabama bald eagles are found throughout the state along the major lake and river systems. Although fish comprise the major part of their diet, small animals such as rats, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, snakes, and turtles are also eaten. Eagles are notorious for stealing fish from other birds. There are accounts of eagles harassing ospreys while in flight until the osprey drops the fish. Then the eagle swoops down, catching the fish as it falls. Eagles are also known to feed on carrion (dead animals).
Bald eagles mate for life and share all nesting and brood rearing responsibilities. Large nests are most often built in the crowns of tall trees usually near water. Breeding pairs usually return to the same nest year after year, sprucing up the nest by adding new nesting material. Some nests may reach ten feet across and weigh 2,000 pounds. One, two, or occasionally three eggs are laid from December to January and are incubated for 30-32 days. Eaglets are relatively small at hatching and require nearly three months of development before leaving the nest. Juveniles are about the size of the adults when they leave the nest. They reach sexual maturity at approximately five years of age. Their life span is estimated to be about 30 years.
Historically bald eagles nested along the Gulf Coast and in the Tennessee Valley in Alabama. The population dwindled in the 1950s and 1960s due mainly to the devastating effects of DDT pesticide poisoning. The chemical caused the eagles, and other bird species, to begin laying eggs with shells so thin that they often broke during incubation, failing to hatch. The population plummeted and wintering birds in Alabama became very rare and the breeding population completely died out. DDT was banned in 1972 and the population slowly began to increase. A few eagles would overwinter in Alabama but these birds migrated north in the spring to nest. They were not imprinted upon Alabama for their nesting behavior.
BALD EAGLE RESTORATION
In the early 1980s, the Bald Eagle Restoration Project was initiated by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program. To be successful, juvenile eagles would have to be forced to take their first flight in Alabama to become imprinted on the geographic area. This process is known as hacking, and from 1985-91, ninety-one juvenile eagles were released. The work of many dedicated wildlife biologists and conservationists helped this magnificent bird of prey return to all areas of Alabama.
Here are some of the milestones and history of this wildlife success story:
1984 - The beginning of the Bald Eagle Restoration Project by the Nongame Wildlife Program of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to attempt to restore Alabama's nesting bald eagle population.
1985 - The first juvenile eagles (4) were released (hacked) by the Nongame Wildlife Program in Jackson County, Alabama, at a release site on Guntersville Lake.
1986 - Ten juvenile eagles were released in Jackson County.
1987 - The first confirmed nesting attempt by bald eagles in Alabama since 1949. It was not successful. The eagles were banded birds believed to be from a Tennessee release program. Twelve juvenile eagles were released in Jackson County.
1988 - One confirmed nest. The pair from 1987 tried again, but were unsuccessful. Seven juvenile eagles were released in Jackson County.
1989 - Two confirmed nests statewide both unsuccessful. Two juvenile eagles were released in Jackson County.
1990 - Four nests statewide, all unsuccessful. However, the first confirmed nesting attempt by eagles released in Jackson County occurred. Two additional juvenile eagles were released in Jackson County.
1991 - Five nests statewide, 2 of which included the first SUCCESSFUL nests by bald eagles in Alabama in 42 years. Each nest had 1 eaglet. In a “mega-hack", 56 juvenile eagles were released from 4 sites in west and southwest Alabama.
1992 - Six nests statewide, 3 successful, including the first successful nest in the Tennessee Valley in 43 years.
1993 - Nine nests statewide, 6 were successful. This year saw the first nest containing multiple eaglets (1 nest had 2 eaglets).
1994-1998 - Over the next five years, nesting attempts slowly increased. There were 11 nests in 1994, 16 in 1995, 23 in 1996, 22 in 1997, and 23 in 1998.
1995 - Officially down listed from the Federal Endangered Species List to the Threatened Species List.
1999 - 26 nests are confirmed statewide. The bald eagle was proposed to be delisted from the Federal Endangered and Threatened Species List in July 1999.
2000- First nest on the Conecuh River System in south Alabama.
2001 - First successful nest on Lake Martin in Tallapoosa County and in northwest Alabama. Thirty-five confirmed nests statewide. The highest nesting success rate (89%) to date.
2002 - First confirmed nests on Harris and Pickwick Lakes. Forty-three confirmed nests statewide.
2003 - Forty-seven confirmed nests statewide.
2004 - Fifty-three confirmed nests statewide.
2005 - Sixty-one confirmed nests statewide. First nesting attempts on Smith and Logan Martin Lakes.
2006 - Seventy-seven confirmed nests statewide.
The numbers tell the story. In the twenty years since bald eagles began re-nesting in Alabama, as of 2006, there have been 493 known nesting attempts, with 557 young eagles successfully fledging these nests. This recovery of the bald eagle in Alabama, and indeed nationwide, has been one of the most remarkable success stories in wildlife management.
BALD EAGLE SURVEYS
During January of each year, state wildlife biologists coordinate a statewide survey to determine the trends in the winter bald eagle populations. Many agencies and volunteers across the state count eagles along standardized survey routes. When the survey was initiated in 1979 only 21 eagles were counted statewide. Since then, the trend has been upward and, in recent years, the yearly surveys average about 100 birds. Areas with concentrations of wintering eagles are Pickwick Lake near Waterloo and Guntersville Lake near Guntersville State Park. Aerial nesting surveys are also conducted each year during late winter and spring.
BALD EAGLE MANAGEMENT AND PROTECTION
Federal and state laws exist to protect bald eagles from harassment and disturbance as well as killing. The Bald Eagle Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act established fines up to $50,000 and prison terms up to two years.
Habitat management for bald eagles involves preserving nesting, roosting and feeding areas and providing for future habitat. U. S Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines state there should be no timber cutting, construction or other disturbing activities within 500 yards of traditional roosting or nesting sites. Development activities and the use of toxic chemicals should be restricted within a mile at these sites. Perch trees along shorelines and water quality must be managed and enhanced to provide high quality feeding areas.
The recovery of the bald eagle is truly remarkable and will go alongside the modern wildlife management success stories of the white-tailed deer, Eastern wild turkey, wood duck and Eastern bluebird. In 1999 the bald eagle was proposed to be de-listed from the Endangered and Threatened Species List. With the national population now estimated at 4,500 adult bald eagle nesting pairs the future appears to be bright for our national symbol.
For additional information, see other sites such as www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Wildlife/Wildlife_profiles/profile_bald_eagle.htm