Return of the Eagles

For the first time that we can recall, a pair of bald eagles has successfully bred at a Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary (Arcadia in Easthampton and Northampton).

This is no small feat and needless to say, we were all very excited. But to really appreciate what a marvel this is, you need to look at the rise and fall and rise again of the bald eagle.

A Look Back
Revered by Native Americans and considered a symbol of strength, courage, and freedom to the European settlers, the bald eagle became a powerful icon of the United States. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s something alarming happened. The bald eagle population suffered dramatic declines, which were linked to the introduction of the pesticide DDT.

Once DDT was banned in the 70s, the bald eagle population began to slowly come back. Here in Massachusetts, though, a breeding bald eagle was a rare occurrence. Prior to 1989, the last presumed nesting of this species was at the beginning of the century.

In 1982, however, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife teamed with Mass Audubon to launch a project to restore the bald eagle as a breeding bird in the Commonwealth. In 1989, two pairs of eagles successfully reared young at Quabbin.

In the years that followed, the number of nesting eagles has increased and spread across the state. In 2010, 17 bald eagle nests in Massachusetts produced a total of 28 chicks who survived the nestling stage and fledged.

The Present
In 2012, a pair of bald eagles built a nest and produced two eggs at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary. Sadly one egg never hatched and the other nestling didn’t survive. This year, though, we had a much happier ending. Two eaglets successfully hatched, were reared, and most recently fledged the nest.

Keeping a close eye: Mary Shanley-Koeber, sanctuary director at Arcadia. Mary, who has been with Mass Audubon for 30 years (26 years as sanctuary director), is retiring this fall and she couldn’t have asked for a better send off.

View a photo slideshow of this year’s eagles and share your eagle sightings and experiences in the comments!

8 thoughts on “Return of the Eagles

  1. Mark

    I have recently seen on a couple occasions a Bald Eagle circling over the oxbow from Interstate 91.

  2. thomas shanley

    hello i am curious,did luck play or did the mass audubon help in any way to entice breeding pairs to nest? i love joppa flats and i appreciate all the hard work you all do.enjoy!what a veiw you have at work!

    1. Hillary Post author

      Checked in with our regional scientist for that area and here’s his response:

      While Mass Audubon did nothing specifically to entice the breeding bald eagles to nest here, Arcadia’s general conditions are favorable, including the low level of human disturbance around the nest site, and proximity to foraging areas and food resources.

      Probably a key ingredient in the bald eagle’s selection of this nest site was the presence of very tall trees within a substantial area of intact floodplain forest. Mature floodplain forest is unusual, even here along the Connecticut River, as most large river floodplains in Massachusetts are used for agriculture. Arcadia’s floodplain forest is among the highest quality examples of this community type remaining in the state, and this forest’s age, size, and relative isolation are probably factors in the eagles’ site selection. It also probably didn’t hurt that a large great blue heron population happens to nest in the same forest—the eagles don’t have to go far to find food for their young.

  3. emily

    I was in Northampton and Holyoke today, I could have taken the side trip to Arcadia to see the eagles

  4. Kevin

    Nice to see these majestic birds are showing signs of recovery.

    However, blaming DDT for their decline is more urban myth than science. Bald eagles were threatened with extinction in the early 1920’s, before widespread use of DDT. After 15 years of widespread usage of DDT, Audubon ornithologists counted 25% more eagles per observer in 1960 than during the pre-DDT census (Marvin, PH. 1964 Birds on the rise. Bull Entomol Soc Amer 10(3):184-186; Wurster, CF. 1969 Congressional Record S4599, May 5, 1969; Anon. 1942. The 42nd Annual Christmas Bird Census. Audubon Magazine 44:1-75 (Jan/Feb 1942; Cruickshank, AD (Editor). 1961. The 61st Annual Christmas Bird Census. Audubon Field Notes 15(2):84-300; White-Stevens, R.. 1972. Statistical analyses of Audubon Christmas Bird censuses. Letter to New York Times, August 15, 1972).

    Wildlife authorities attributed bald eagle population reductions to a “widespread loss of suitable habitat”, but noted that “illegal shooting continues to be the leading cause of direct mortality in both adult and immature bald eagles.” (Anon.. 1978. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Tech Bull 3:8-9).

    Finally, no significant correlation between DDT residues and shell thickness was reported in a large series of bald eagle eggs. [Postupalsky, S. 1971. (DDE residues and shell thickness). Canadian Wildlife Service manuscript, April 8, 1971].

    1. Adaela

      Although I have not read all the sources sited above about DDT and eagles, I am here inserting another source that may explain some misconceptions, mainly due to the region where data was gathered. Source: “The Bald Eagle,” pp., 5-7, by Jon Gerrard and Gary Bortolotti, 1988.. Jon Gerrard was one of the earliest bald eagle banders in the 1960’s.

      Gerrard states that bald eagle populations began to increase in the 1930’s and 1940’s due to 1) the Bald Eagle Act (1940) which protected bald eagles from wanton destruction, 2) new public awareness, and 3)the construction of locks, dams and reservoirs along the Mississippi, Missouri and other rivers providing improved winter habitat. In the western interior USA the winter populations doubled between 1955 and 1980.

      One of the earliest banders, Charles Broley, a retired banker and volunteer, began banding eagles in 1939 in Florida. He also banded eagles in Ontario. Broley banded eagles from 1939 to 1959. He noticed an increase in eaglets from 1939 to 1946. After 1946 there was a dramatic drop in eaglets in Florida. In 1946 there were over 140 eaglets, by 1950 there were slightly over 20 eaglets. Broley was not able to band eaglets in Ontario after 1951 due to widespread reproductive failure.

      After WWII (around 1946), DDT was sprayed intensively along the east coast to control salt marsh mosquitos.

      In 1972, DDT was banned in the USA. East of the Mississippi River, the bald eagle had survived as breeding pairs only in parts of Florida, the Chesapeake Bay region, Maine and interior Michigan and Wisconsin.

  5. Allen Shaw

    It may be worthwhile to note that Federal code prohibits approaching a bald eagle nesting site. I’m not sure of the size of the buffer zone, but the number 300 yards (3 football fields) sticks in my mind.

  6. Douglas Morrill

    SWEET , SO GLAD THAT THEY HAVE RETURN TO MASSACHUSETTS.. I have been so connected to the eagle in so many ways.Keep up the good work. Thanks !

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