North Georgia Wildlife Part 7 (Bald Eagles)

Did you know there are bald eagles in the North GA Mountains?

The bald eagle is truly an all American bird as it is the only eagle that is unique to North America. While our national symbol was in great danger of extinction throughout most of North America 25 years ago, the bald eagle has made a tremendous comeback! The bald eagle populations have greatly improved in numbers, productivity, and security in recent years.

Wildlife experts believe there may have been 12,500 to 37,500 nesting bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states when the bird was first adopted as our national symbol in 1782.  Since that time the bald eagle population has suffered from a number of factors including intentional persecution and degradation of its habitat.  In 1940 Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill, harass, possess (without a permit), or sell bald eagles.  By the early 1960s the numbers of bald eagle pairs had dropped to fewer than 450 and in 1967 bald eagles were officially declared an endangered species under the Endangered Species Preservation Act.

Bald eagles have very few natural enemies although males are sometimes killed during territorial disputes.  They just simply need tall, mature trees in which to construct their large nests and clean waters where they can find food.  Although bald eagles seem to prefer an environment full of quiet isolation, in recent years many bald eagles have tolerated human activity and are thriving in the face of the development that has impacted so much of their habitat.

Male bald eagles measure about 3 feet from head to tail, weigh about 8-12 lbs, and have a wingspan of about 6 ½ feet.  Females are larger then males some reaching up to 14 lbs and having a wingspan of up to 8 feet. The bald eagle has large pale eyes, a yellow beak, and great black talons.  The distinctive white head and tail feathers appear only after the bird is 4 to 5 years old.

Bald eagles can live 30 years or longer in the wild and even longer in captivity.  They mate for life and build huge nests in the tops of large trees near rivers, lakes, or other open water.  The nests are often reused year after year with additions to the nests made annually. Some nests can reach 10 feet across and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.  Although bald eagles may range over great distances they usually nest within 100 miles of where they were raised.

Bald eagles normally lay 2-3 eggs once a year and the eggs hatch after about 35 days.  The young eagles are flying within 3 months and are on their own a month later.  However, disease, lack of food, bad weather, or human interference can result in the deaths of many eaglets.  Typically fewer than half will survive their first year.

Most of their diet is fish, but they will feed on almost anything they can catch or find, this includes water birds, rodents, turtles, and carrion.  In winter the northern eagles migrate south and gather in large numbers near open water where fish or other prey are plentiful.

In an effort to restore a healthy bald eagle population to Georgia the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Division used a method called hacking. At 8 weeks of age nestling eaglets obtained from captive breeding facilities or from wild nests in areas where surplus birds were available were placed on manmade towers located in remote areas of suitable habitat. The eaglets were kept in an enclosure and fed by the biologists who stayed out of sight.  When the birds were capable of flight at about 12 weeks of age the enclosure around the artificial nest was opened and the birds were free to leave.  Food was still provided at the release site until the birds learned to fend for themselves in the wild.

With hacking, other recovery methods, habitat improvement, and the banning of DDT bald eagle populations have steadily increased. In Georgia, there were no known nesting pairs throughout most of the 1970s, but since then the population has steadily increased. There were 142 documented nesting pairs in 2011 and while habitat loss still remains a threat to the bald eagle’s full recovery most experts agree that the numbers to date are encouraging.  Hopefully soon we will have the sight of our national symbol soaring the skies once again.


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