Bald Eagles Now Nesting In 5O Pennsylvania Counties
State threatened species continues its ascent.
By Joe Kosack – Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist
HARRISBURG, PA –-(Ammoland.com)- The bald eagle’s amazing recovery from the brink of extinction in this state continues at a heartwarming pace as America prepares to celebrate the birth of its independence, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
So far this year, 192 bald eagle nests – in 50 counties – have been recorded in Pennsylvania. As recently as 1983, only three Crawford County nests remained in the state.
The bald eagle has symbolized freedom in America for more than 225 years. Its ruggedness and handsome features appealed to the country’s founding fathers. Well, most of them anyway. Ben Franklin preferred the innocuous and timid wild turkey. He considered it more honorable.
But in the spirit of democracy, and with the blood spilled to acquire this country’s newfound independence less than a decade old, a congressional committee, comprised of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin, chose the bald eagle, which was proposed by Adams. Despite Franklin’s loquacious pleas for the gobbler and stated disdain for eagles, Congress directed Charles Thomson to develop what became known as the “Great Seal” of the United States. Interestingly, Franklin wrote that he thought the seal created by Thomson, “… looks more like a turkey.”
When the founding forefathers were deliberating what should appear on the Great Seal in the 1780s, America was believed to be home to as many as 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the Lower 48. By the 1960s, that number would drop to less than 500 pairs. Today, eagle nesting pairs are believed to number about 10,000.
“The bald eagle’s remarkable comeback is a product of sound and progressive wildlife management and environmental reform,” explained Game Commission Executive Director Carl G. Roe. “Here was a species that was so smitten by the deleterious ecological consequences associated with DDT that it was barely hanging on in the Lower 48. But today, the bald eagle is back in numbers that haven’t been seen here or elsewhere in America since before the Civil War.
“As wildlife managers, we are proud of that accomplishment. It is the product of sound science, interstate and international cooperation and commitment to the resource. As bald eagles continue to move closer and closer to this state’s urban settings, more and more Pennsylvanians will get to appreciate the progress that has been made with this symbolic species. And they will. Immediately. Their presence is that captivating!”
It is important to remember, though, that the relatively recent appearance of bald eagles around Philadelphia, and now Pittsburgh, is related to what’s been happening in the more remote areas of the state, where eagles have been moving in at a phenomenal pace. It doesn’t hurt, though, that both cities are strategically located along major river systems with good fisheries.
The 192 bald eagle nests recorded this spring include eight that were built, but where pairs did not lay eggs. Counties supporting the largest numbers of known nesting pairs are: Crawford, 22; Lancaster, 16; Pike, 16; Mercer, 11; and York 11.
“It seems likely that Pennsylvania has eclipsed 200 bald eagle nests, but until they’re found or confirmed, we’ll stick with what we know from our official count,” explained Doug Gross, a Game Commission endangered birds biologist. “Each year, this nesting snapshot becomes more complicated to develop. And this year was no exception, given the increasing numbers of eagles and areas they now occupy, and the cold, blustery conditions Pennsylvania endured this past spring.
“Some pairs are not using the nests they used last year. Some seem to have moved to alternative nests in neighboring states – New York, New Jersey, Maryland or Ohio. In addition, we still don't know the status of several nesting pairs yet and have heard reports about other nests that we haven’t been able to confirm.”
Reporting on eagle nests is anything but an exact science. In 2009, the June nest count was at least 170; that number increased by four until year’s end. In 2008, the June estimate was 140 known nests; the final nest count was 156. The agency learns of new nests with increasing regularity from the public. Some of the latest reported were found by birders walking trails in off-road locations.
Residents aware of a bald eagle nest – they are among the largest nests of all birds – in their area should consider reporting it to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The easiest way to contact the agency and Doug Gross is through: [email protected] Use the words “Eagle Nest Information” in the subject field. Counties where nests have not yet reported this year are: Beaver, Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Cameron, Fulton, Franklin, Greene, Lackawanna, Lebanon, Lehigh, Potter, Schuylkill, Snyder, Susquehanna, Union and Washington.
Although Pennsylvania’s bald eagle nesting population has been increasing, it hasn’t been without some bumps along the way. More nests means more eaglets are usually involved in nest collapses caused by spring snowfall and strong winds, or find themselves on the forest floor and at the mercy of predators as a result of juvenile missteps spurred by bad weather or human activities.
In Mercer County, Wildlife Conservation Officer Don Chaybin was led by David Wade, of Jamestown, to an eagle nest blow-down in Greene Township where the officer found two eaglets, one dead, the other badly injured. Their nest tree had been uprooted by high winds during a Memorial Day thunderstorm.
“The nestlings were almost ready to fledge and they must have ridden the nest to the ground,” Chaybin explained. “Unfortunately, one was killed outright and the surviving eagle was severely injured. It was taken to Sue DeArment, at the Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation, who worked with Dr. Ken Felix, of the Glenwood Pet Hospital in Erie, to treat the bird. In spite of everyone’s efforts, the young eagle died a week later of unknown causes.”
But WCO Chaybin’s work with young bald eagles apparently wasn’t done. In mid-June, Brandon Herriott, of New Wilmington, while fishing in the Big Bend area along the Shenango River in Jefferson Township, discovered a young eagle. The bird appeared to be too weak to fly.
Herriott concluded the bird must be hungry, so he filleted a 28-inch northern pike and left it with the eagle. It began feeding almost immediately. The fisherman left and contacted Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Waterways Conservation Officer Jeff Giardina, who passed the information on to Chaybin.
Several hours passed between the time Herriott left the bird and he returned with WCO Chaybin. It had consumed about half the fish and was noticeably more active and appeared stronger.
“When I got there, the bird was active, but was captured quickly,” Chaybin said. “The eaglet was found within a mile of an active nest, but adult birds were not seen, even though the young bird was very vocal. Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation also received this eaglet, where it remains under the care of Sue DeArment and Dr. Felix.”
More eagles and nests are placing an increased burden on wildlife rehabilitators. “Our wildlife rehabilitators are taking on an increasing load of work to nurture and restore the health of eaglets so they can be reintroduced into the wild,” Gross noted. “Bill and Stephanie Streeter, at the Delaware Valley Raptor Center in Milford, also have been caring for some downed young eagles. I can’t say enough about the good things our licensed wildlife rehabilitators are doing. They really do deserve recognition and the public's support!”
Even with the bald eagle population’s impressive response to improving environmental conditions in Pennsylvania and America, the species still has plenty of quality open range to occupy before it will be proposed for delisting in Pennsylvania. That the species is building nests in the shadows of the Pennsylvania’s largest cities is gratifying.
“There is a considerable amount of unoccupied or sparsely-used territory in Pennsylvania for nesting eagles,” said Gross. “The best river destinations include the Susquehanna River’s West Branch, and the Beaver, Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers. Our Lake Erie shoreline also has plenty to offer, as do many unoccupied lakes and impoundments found across the state.”
One of the eight nests that did not produce eggs this spring was the nest in Pittsburgh. But, Gross suggested, Allegheny Countians shouldn’t fret just yet.
“When a pair of eagles bonds and builds a nest in the spring, if the nest doesn’t produce young the first year, there’s a stronger chance that it will the next year,” Gross emphasized. “If eagles can nest successfully in Philadelphia, there’s no reason to doubt the tenacity and viability of the Pittsburgh pair. The future looks bright for the Steel City’s nest.”
Another interesting sidelight to the 2010 nesting information is that the county with the largest number of nesting eagles in 2009 increased its total to 22 this year with six new nests. Crawford County was the bald eagle’s stronghold during the bird’s population collapse and has remained as such since then. Yet, it increased its number of nests by more than 25 percent over winter. It is a case of the strong getting stronger. It is also testament to the fantastic eagle habitat found there.
The Game Commission continues to heighten its efforts to further the public’s understanding of bald eagles. A comprehensive bald eagle endangered species account and bald eagle nest etiquette guide have been added recently to the agency’s website at www.pgc.state.pa.us. The references are found under Endangered Species.
“The updated Threatened and Endangered Species Section on the agency’s website gives Pennsylvanians an unprecedented chance to get acquainted with this remarkable bird and many other species of special concern,” said Roe. “These references will help everyone understand that although bald eagles are back, they still need space and require special considerations.”
The Game Commission currently classifies the bald eagle as a threatened species in Pennsylvania. They were removed from the federal endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007, because delisting goals had been achieved.
In 1983, the Game Commission began a seven-year bald eagle restoration 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 bald eaglets from Canada were released from sites at Dauphin County’s Haldeman Island and Pike County’s Shohola Falls. The resurgence of eagles in Pennsylvania is directly related to this program, which also was carried out in other states in the Northeast.