The Return of the Bald Eagle

"WAKE UP, Rebecca, wake up!" My friend's little sister is yanking the covers off me.

"Come on! You've gotta see this," she says, pulling me over to the guestroom window.

"What am I looking at?" I ask groggily, scanning the Elsies' backyard and the Bras d'Or lake beyond. Then I see it almost directly in front of me, sitting still as a statue in the tree. My first Bald Eagle. We marvel at it in silence.

It is exhilarating to see a Bald Eagle up close, close enough to see its perpetually concerned facial expression, its confident posture, its powerful claws. But to watch it in flight is awesome, as its massive wings take it higher and higher until it becomes a mere speck circling in the sky. And as recently as the 1970s, precious few people would have been lucky enough to watch such a magnificent display.

In a time when we are bombarded with sad stories about the destruction we cause to the natural world, there is good news here. Indeed the eagle has landed! Once a rare sight in most populated areas in North America, they are now almost common in some places. And Nova Scotia enjoys such a stable population that juvenile birds have regularly been transplanted to other places on the continent.

"In the spring, summer and fall, if you're driving along the Bras d'Or lakes, you almost always see at least one eagle," says Peter Austin-Smith, former supervisor of the eagle and osprey monitoring program with the Department of Natural Resources. "They're doing quite well. And we see more and more Bald Eagles every year."

Public sentiment for Bald Eagles is at such a positive level today that it's hard to believe there was ever a time when they were persecuted. Farmers in particular didn't like them, and often took pleasure in killing them, believing them to be a menace to livestock. By the 1960s, Bald Eagles became conspicuously absent where they had once been common. And though the environmental movement had begun to alter people's perceptions of birds of prey, a much more insidious problem had begun to manifest itself. Widespread reproductive failure became apparent in a variety of hawks, falcons and eagles. This was later attributed to the use of eggshell-thinning organochlorine pesticides.

But Nova Scotia was somewhat cushioned from the impact of these pesticides by its proximity to the vast, unpopulated north. "These factors affected Bald Eagles here, as well, but certainly to a lesser degree than in the States," says Austin-Smith. "The low levels prior to the 1960s I think we can attribute to a lack of public awareness. Birds of prey were not protected then. But now people know not to disturb their nests, sportsmen are aware they're not to shoot them, and farmers actually like to see hawks around their farms now."

Austin-Smith says the improved public perception of Bald Eagles and their kin is probably the single most important factor contributing to their recovery. But what's more, people have begun giving the eagles a helping hand. In fact, helping eagles through the winter has become somewhat of a cottage industry in the Annapolis Valley.

"What the eagles do in the wintertime is scavenge. That's their modus operandi," says Austin-Smith. "They feed on this agricultural carrion (dead chickens) that's put out by the poultry farmers."

At Sheffield Mills in King's County, these feedings have turned into an annual event, attracting thousands of people in a single "Eagle Watch Weekend". During these feedings, it is not unusual to see 40 eagles sitting in a single tree. "People are willing to pay to see these things," says Austin-Smith. "Last year they had the Mounties there because of all the traffic. It was quite a sight!"

Although such winter feedings are by no means natural, they have undoubtedly contributed to the recent success of eagle populations. Mortality among juveniles is normally high, as they haven't developed the skills to find enough food to help them through the winter months.

"The first year or two of life is extremely difficult. Some of these birds are just out of their nests and they find it hard to secure enough food to get by," says Austin-Smith. "Essentially what we've done is we've given them an assist, a boost, so that we can get the population back up and going again."

Austin-Smith says that the Bald Eagles are doing so well that there is little more we need to do to maintain their status, other than to make sure we conserve sufficient habitat to fulfill their requirements. But as Austin-Smith points out, there is a danger that the Bald Eagle's plight will cease to interest the public.

"The major concern on my part is as with so many of these projects, they're ballyhoo and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. But when things get flying again people lose interest," he says. "But Bald Eagles are such magnificent birds, they will always be on the forefront of our consciousness. I'm not certain we could ever really forget about the need for these things to be protected."

Bald Eagles on the web

Eagle Watching Tours, Sheffield Mills, NS

Nova Scotia's Bald Eagles Great pictures

Flying Like an Eagle in Kings County from Outdoors Nova Scotia

Eagle Sites penty of links here

East Coast Birds Magazine,

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