Back from the Brink of Extinction

Bald Eagle Conservation Is a Rare Success Story

Can you think of a bird that makes you stop in your tracks just to admire it? The bald eagle is that bird, and our nation's symbol.

Bald eagles can weigh up to 14 pounds and are strong enough to lift a human toddler. These birds are carnivorous, meaning they only eat meat. The bald eagle's diet consists mostly of fish but may include a wider variety of foods such as carrion, smaller birds, small mammals, snakes, bugs, or food stolen from other animals. Because fish dominates the bald eagle’s diet, they tend to nest in high tree tops or cliff sides by lakes and rivers.

Bald eagles mate for life, laying their eggs in pairs and raising their young for up to five years. When young, the birds are white balls of fluff, but they soon shed their fluff and grow flying feathers, which are a mix of dark brown and white. Young eagles lack the famous "bald" head that all the adults have, making it easier to identify the juveniles.

In the early 1900's, bald eagles were nearly wiped out when their food source was poisoned by the increasing use of DDT, a harmful chemical. The DDT-filled pesticides were sprayed on crops, causing the residue to run off into streams and rivers every time it rained. The plants in the river absorbed the DDT chemicals, then fish or other animals eating those plants would then be eaten by the eagles. The effects of DDT were devastating for the species, weakening the shells of the eggs they laid. The weak shells could not handle the weight of the parents and would break and crack when incubating. The DDT affected them to the extent that the eggs would not hatch even if they hadn’t cracked.

Bald eagles were killed not only by DDT, but also by lead poisoning from the eagles eating animals that had been shot with lead bullets. They were also shot down by farmers, who thought the bald eagles were a threat to their livestock.

In the late 1940's, many people realized that their national symbol could soon become extinct. Congress took action and passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill, sell, or possess the species. The Protection Act helped keep the bald eagle population stable. In 1962, author Rachel Carson wrote the book Silent Spring, which revealed the dark side of DDT and paved the way for its banning in 1972. Since then the bald eagle population has risen to over 70,000 in all of North America. On June 28, 2007, the bald eagle species was removed from the endangered list after making a full recovery.

These birds are one of a kind and thrive continuously thanks to increased awareness of the danger of DDT. Yet many other animals remain on the endangered list, and still others may meet the terrible fate of extinction.

[Source: U.S Wildlife Service]

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