I won’t be writing to you about flags, stars, olive branches, arrows, or banners, but I will be writing about the earliest symbol of the Federal Government - the Bald Eagle, chosen by small Congressional committees around 1782.

Many of you probably know that Ben Franklin objected and supported the Turkey instead. His view was never recorded in Congress, but he wrote to his daughter:

“For my own part, I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk (Osprey); and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird…attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.”

Deeper in the history of the Bald Eagle were indigenous people, collecting eagle feathers, talons, beaks, and bones in parts of North America, who felt the eagles were competing for their basic food, mostly fish, and small mammals. The arriving European settlers regarded the eagles as frightening raptors, dangerous to livestock and children, so many Bald Eagles were purposely killed. Through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Bald Eagles were killed by firearms, by traps baited and set for other predators, and in later decades deadly chemicals were released in the environment, - water, air, and soil – by industry and agriculture especially the pesticide DDT, and toxic lead and mercury.

In the 1940s, the dense population of Bald Eagles on the southeastern coast of Alaska fed on the salmon runs, but to the anger of anglers and the fish industry, the state-approved slaughtering Eagles, even drafted an Eagle Bounty in Alaska with its government paying up to $2 for each of 128,000 killed eagles.

Considering the Bald Eagles’ more recent history, they had been nesting in Vermont in the early 20th century but were not breeding in Vermont in the 1990s because they consumed the toxin DDT that was eventually banned in Vermont. A hacking program was begun in the Dead Creek region of Addison. The hacking initiative introduced new young Bald Eagles from other states and fed and protected them. In 2003-2005, their growth, their recognizing of familiar habitats, and their handlers carefully monitoring reintroduced them to Vermont. Also, the Bald Eagle was finally removed from Vermont’s Endangered Species Act.

In this hacking program, eleven eaglets from other states were raised and released in Vermont. They were all tracked, two died, but two breeding eagle pairs appeared. With Bald Eagles from adjacent states and Canada, Vermont now has a recovered eagle population.

When I walk into a local store, someone will approach me “Hi, Charlie, I saw a bird that looked like an Eagle in Lyndonville.” Or “I almost ran over an Eagle feeding on a dead raccoon on I-91 in Ryegate.” I’m very pleased that many people are aware of our Eagle population. I’ve watched Eagles all over the Kingdom, and seen their nests in Barnet, East Concord, Newport, also Newbury, south of the Kingdom but in the Connecticut Valley nearby. Have you seen a Bald Eagle in the Kingdom? Where? I have a long list of my sightings.

BALD EAGLES NOW

Adult Bald Eagles often look majestic. These are the largest raptors in the U.S. The females are larger than the males. The biggest full-grown Eagles are in Alaska with wingspans about 96 inches and in length from bill to tail about 38 inches. The full-grown females weigh about 11.77 pounds on average while the males weigh in at about 9.3 pounds. The name “Bald” Eagle is not because they are skin-headed. In the era of naming, BALD also meant white-headed.

This species, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is distributed throughout North America. Their hot spots include:

  • The Alaskan coast of island archipelagos and the Pacific coast of British Columbia, California, Oregon, and Washington.
  • The sprawling lake regions from Saskatchewan through Minnesota.
  • The northern Atlantic coast of Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Gaspe.
  • The Chesapeake Bay and the grand rivers that flow into it;
  • Florida and other SE coasts; and
  • Large river systems throughout the entire continent from the Yukon to the Rio Grande, the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee, and St. Lawrence, Hudson, and Connecticut.

Bald Eagles prefer to build their nests near bodies of water to satisfy their appetites. The nest reveals evidence of the food delivered to their chicks (eaglets); mostly fish, but also ducks and geese, small mammals, snakes, and roadkill carrion. Pellets, bones, scales, fur, and feathers are the clues in the nest. One of the breeding pair, usually the female, will be guarding their eggs, hatchlings, and fast-growing nestlings, while the males will deliver most of the food to the nest. Predators that might try to take away tiny Eaglets include Goshawks, other eagles, Great Horned Owls, raccoons, and tree-climbing bears.

The nest is positioned between large, high, limbs, and is made of sticks and live stout branches, with a softer plant bed in the center made of tree needles or leaves, or mosses and grasses. The nest is usually in a mature habitat located near the shorelines of lakes, rivers, bays, and seas. The gigantic eagle nest is not abandoned each season. Instead, the pair improves the nest with fresh materials every year, unlike the Osprey nest that is newly built on an open platform. In Florida, Eagle nests are so heavy that they may bring down a host pine tree. One southern nest was reported as so bulky that while the eaglets were growing on the nest bed, while lower in the loose nest materials, a family of Great Horned Owls were uninvited tenants in a gap to move into the Eagles’ nest.

FAMILY AND GROWTH

The Life Cycles of Bald Eagles are remarkable as are all birds. Their rapid growth challenges observers. The young dark eagles about seven weeks old may appear to be larger than the adults in flight. Their flight feathers (wings and tails) have to be long enough to accommodate their new flying and carrying weight with young muscle systems. Though these young “teenagers” may surpass the size of their parents, their development is expressed in color and pattern of flight and contour (body) feathers, also in the changing color of eye irises, exposed skin cere near bill, legs, and feet, mostly from grey to yellow, but talons become black.

Their Cycle of Growth appears to depend upon continental climate. Southern Bald Eagles do not grow as large as those we see up here in the north.

Some Bald Eafles have a migration cycle. The deep southern eagles head north up the Mississippi corridor in early spring. During a few minutes, I watched 40 of them moving northward from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, to Red Wing, Minnesota. Ponds and lakes further north attract their continuing range through Minnesota into central Canada.

But, New England Bald Eagles, don’t migrate far; they tend to cluster along flowing rivers, spillways at dams, ice-free lakes, and coastal bays where the fish are still accessible.

Bald Eagles belong to a global bird family, the SEA EAGLES (the Haliaeetus genus). Each of the 10 species of the sea eagles has its geographic range, and all 10 species have plumage dominated by patterns of brown and white feathers. The most striking is the huge Steller’s Sea Eagle of the Arctic coasts, with a huge yellow beak and white wings and legs. And also, The African Fish Eagle of southern Africa displays a brown belly and white head, wings, and tail. These two are as flashy as our Bald Eagles.