DALLAS – The national symbol almost disappeared from the wilderness in the 1970s because of pesticides, but a partnership between the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Saskatchewan, Canada saved it.
In Northeast Pennsylvania, the bald eagle population dropped from 100 or more eagle pairs in the 1930s and early 1940s to an estimated three pairs in the early 1980s, according to the Game Commission. Between 1983 and 1989, the Game Commission worked with the town of La Ronge in Saskatchewan to capture 88 eaglets. They were raised in “hacking towers” in Pike County, where they had no human interaction, and were released into the Pennsylvania wild six weeks later.
This relocation effort saved the eagle population in Pennsylvania, Bill Williams said during an information session July 17 at the Pennsylvania Game Commission office in Dallas.
In 1998, 25 adult pairs of eagles were reported to the Game Commission, 100 pairs in 2006, and 300 or more pairs in early 2019. An eagle reaches maturity five years after birth, mates with the same partner for life, and lives up to 32 years around the same body of water where it was born. An eagle’s diet consists of 60 to 90 percent fish, with the remaining percentage coming from small mammals and whatever else they can find.
Williams, an Information and Education Supervisor at the Pennsylvania Game Commission in Dallas, said eagles are active, but not migratory birds. “If you’ve got eagles nesting on a lake or a pond or a stationary body of water, their food source is cut off during the winter,” Williams said. “The eagles will go where they need to for food. Some will go 100 miles and some will go 20 miles. If you look at the Lackawaxen River in Pike County, eagles line up and down that creek. They’re not flying south, they are staying here where the food is.”
During World War II, many governments throughout the world used DDT, an insecticide, to battle malaria carried by mosquitoes. Following the war, U.S. farmers sprayed the chemical directly on crops and in waterways. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, cases of malaria in the U.S. dropped from 400,000 in 1946 to zero in 1950 because of DDT. When ingested by a mature eagle, the chemical causes the shell of its eaglet’s egg to weaken and even break. In many cases, the chemical caused premature birth, which led to death.
The federal government banned the chemical in 1972, but the bald eagle population struggled to recover naturally, leading the Game Commission to step in and aid with the repopulation. The population of bald eagles in Northeast Pennsylvania stabilized and continued to outgrow the population numbers before the rapid decline, but the Game Commission says the exponential increase will eventually plateau due to limited space for the eagles. Bald eagles require at least 30 to 40 feet of isolation from other animals and people to survive.
To ensure each eagle’s nest is protected, Wildlife Conservation Officers monitor every nest reported to the Game Commission. The Game Commission advises people to be wary of their surroundings when in the woods and to respect the space of an eagle. Threats to eagles include poaching, car and train collisions with eagles, electrocutions because of electrical wires and poisoning, which includes lead ammunition, rat poison and barbiturates used to euthanize household pets.
Though eagle poaching is illegal in the U.S., the Game Commission says a handful of eagles are found each year after being shot.
“The No. 1 (cause of harm) is the consumption of lead through ammunition that’s been left in trails or in animals that were left in the woods,” Williams said.
The Game Commission conducts tests on every eagle that dies in Pennsylvania. Between 2006 and 2013, the Game Commission tested 202 eagles and found 30 percent have died because of ingesting heavy metals. To attempt to put an end to lead and other heavy metal poisonings to eagles, Williams said hunters should bury gutted deer under the ground, away from the sight of an eagle and to use lead-free ammunition when possible.
The Game Commission recommends if you find an injured eagle in the wild to immediately call your local Game Commission office and to keep your distance from the animal.