• Nick Zacharias

The eagles have landed


PHOTO BY PAUL BRIERLEY

Snapped by quick-thinking Hudson resident Paul Brierley, these two majestic bald eagles stopped for dinner on this rock along the Ottawa River behind his home.

In a world where we’re inundated with daily images of the human-driven plight of the natural world, from the burning Amazon rainforest to emaciated polar bears to sea life choking on plastic and oil, it’s nice to see where we’ve gotten things right once in a while. The Bald eagle, once critically endangered, has rebounded magnificently to the point where local sightings are not at all uncommon.

In the 1960s and 1970s Canada’s largest bird of prey was in sharp decline. The biggest culprit was the pesticide DDT which was sprayed widely to control mosquito populations. Since chemical toxins are concentrated as they move up the food chain from zooplankton to small fish to bigger fish to birds, those at the top of the chain (like the eagles and other predators) suffered doses high enough to disrupt their ability to process calcium. The result was thin-shelled eggs which broke before eaglets reached viability and an almost complete decimation of the species.

The banning of the use of DDT under various acts of legislation to protect migratory birds in North America was a game changer.

PHOTO BY PAUL BRIERLEY

Distinguishable by their shorter leg plumage, juvenile bald eagles are often mistaken for golden eagles as they grow to full size within the first three months of life, but don’t develop their characteristic white head until they are 3-5 years old.

Nicki Fleming, a zoologist with The Ecomuseum Zoo in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue and avid bird enthusiast, reports that from just a few scattered surviving birds we are now, “…up to a few hundred breeding pairs in the province of Quebec. Greater Montreal is a perfect place to see them because they feed on fish, and we’re surrounded by water.”

It isn’t just the banning of DDT that did the trick.

Says Fleming, “it’s obviously illegal to shoot Bald eagles, but the banning of lead shot helped too; eagles mostly eat fish but will scavenge opportunistically and they were getting lead poisoning from eating smaller animals that had been shot.”

Even the Bald eagles’ feathers are protected. Their feathers are spectacular, and to avoid encouraging a market to grow up around them (and potentially encouraging poachers) it is actually against the law to collect the feathers when found in the wild.

So next time you look up and see a large bird circling over the water, it may well be a Bald eagle on the hunt for its next catch.

“They are also sometimes cleptoparasites – meaning they might steal from a smaller fishing bird like an osprey,” commented Fleming.

But after all the Bald eagles have been through, who would begrudge them the odd easy meal?

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