Bald eagles are coming back in a strong way


Thirty years ago the sight of a bald eagle got people excited. In Pennsylvania, for example, only three nesting pairs were known in 1982.

In the lower 48 states, there were probably fewer than 500 nesting pairs. Today bald eagles are back. It’s no longer unusual to see a bald eagle.

In fact, if you go to the right places, seeing eagles is almost a certainty.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission recently released information that parallels what has happened in other states. The number of active bald eagle nests this year is 206 in 51 of the state’s 67 counties. This number will almost certainly increase as reports trickle in through the summer.

In 2011, for example, preliminary surveys reported 203 nests, but the final total was 217. Eagle nests in wild, remote terrain can be difficult to locate. So today seeing a bald eagle isn’t the big deal it was 30 years ago — unless it’s your first.

I get emails and letters every year from readers who have seen their first bald eagle, and their notes are peppered with adjectives such as “awesome, amazing, and magnificent.”


Even Carl Roe, executive director of the Game Commission, is impressed. In a statement he says, “…I can’t imagine our outdoors without them. Their presence heightens every trip afield and a chance encounter with a passing bald eagle is almost always the highlight of anyone’s day. Eagles are simply that unforgettable!”

I agree. I’ve seen bald eagles many times in many places. I even had one fly over my house about 20 years ago. And each time I see an eagle, I’m thrilled. And when I’m with a group, everyone thrills at the sight of an eagle.

Pileated woodpeckers, bluebirds, and even scarlet tanagers get yawns when an eagle flies by. With a wingspan of almost seven feet and weighing 10 pounds or more, bald eagles are huge and powerful, a fitting national symbol. Though Pennsylvania’s eagle nests are scattered around the state, they are most frequently found near big rivers and lakes.

Most populated

The counties with the most eagle nests this year are Crawford (21), Lancaster (19), York (10), and Erie (9). Even more encouraging is that eagle nests are showing up in urban areas.

Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) has one nest this year and Philadelphia County has three. Furthermore, the bald eagles’ recovery is not limited to Pennsylvania. In New York, the eagle population jumped from four pairs in the 1980s to 170 breeding pairs today.

Ohio Division of Wildlife Administrator Dave Scott told me this week that Ohio had 194 active nests in 2011, and he expected a similar number this year.

Maryland stopped counting eagles in 2004 when the nesting population reached 393 pairs. Maine has more than 500 active nests, and Michigan reports more than 700 pairs of bald eagles. Florida and Wisconsin each claim more than 1,000 pairs this year, and Minnesota reports more than 2,300 pairs.

Even mountainous West Virginia has had as many as 19 breeding pairs. Many factors contributed to the recovery of bald eagles, but several stand out. Federal law, for example, gives bald eagles complete protection.

Healthy eggs

The days of widespread, senseless slaughter are over. The understanding that DDT cripples bald eagle reproduction was critical. This led to a DDT ban that enables eagles to lay and incubate healthy eggs.

DDT caused egg shells to thin so they cracked under the weight of incubating adults. Then many states initiated aggressive reintroduction campaigns to jump start the declining populations. Pennsylvania’s seven-year bald eagle restoration program, begun in 1983, introduced 88 eaglets from Canada. New York and New Jersey followed a similar strategy.

As these birds reached reproductive maturity in four or five years, they began to breed successfully. The rest is history. Credit state and federal wildlife agencies for the bald eagle’s recovery.

In 1982 bald eagles were critically endangered. In 1994, they were upgraded from endangered to threatened status. In 2007, they were delisted nationally as threatened. Today, they nest in 51 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties and in all states except Hawaii. That is success by any measure.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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