Everyone knows that eagles are awesome. But someone or something is killing our national birds.
Image by Petr Kratochvil via publicdomainpictures.net
Despite fanfare over the webcammed birth of two baby bald eagle in the U.S. National Arboretum last weekend (the first born there in over 50 years) it’s been a shitty month for our national bird. On February 20, locals in Federalsburg, Maryland, found 13 bald eagles dead in one of the largest die-offs of these awesome creatures in recent memory. Then, this past Saturday and Sunday, folks around Dagsboro, Delaware, just 30 miles away, found several more dead and injured birds. Three of the birds discovered there are recovering, but five have died, and locals reported that others flying away seemed disoriented, leading some to suspect they could be dangerously ill.
Although the mid-Atlantic has a robust bald eagle population these days and there’s no proof that these two die-offs were related, the death of 18 birds within a month has animal-loving Americans’ blood up. Rage only built when Maryland officials concluded last week that the 13 eagles there did not die of natural causes and put up a $25,000 bounty for information that could lead them to the people behind the attack. Scientists are still testing Delaware’s dead eagles, but if it turns out that people likely killed them too, some folks will likely go on the warpath for the culprits. Because, whether it’s out of respect for the raptor’s recent escape from extinction, patriotic allegiance to a national symbol, or awe at their fundamental and unique avian badassery, Americans fucking love bald eagles. And we do not tolerate anyone, even our fellow citizens, fucking with their wellbeing.
The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, has been an endemic part of the American experience from day one. When Europeans arrived, there may have been as many as 500,000 of them living everywhere from Alaska to Newfoundland, Baja to Florida. Yet although the bald eagle was named a national symbol in 1782, Americans’ spread into the hinterland started to tank the bird’s numbers in the late 1800s. Cautious and prone to abandoning their nests, bald eagles often fled habitat encroachment. They also became targets for hunters looking to ward off the birds’ competition for fish or sell their feathers and talons. By the 1930s, their decline was notable. And it only accelerated in the 1950s after the introduction of DDT, a mosquito-control chemical which, when it got into the birds’ food chain, hurt their ability to breed and weakened their eggs. By 1963 there were only 417 breeding pairs in the 48 contiguous states. Bald eagles seemed set for extinction.
But the tough-ass birds bounced back. Helped by the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, the criminalization of their harassment, a 1972 ban on DDT, and the landmark 1973 Endangered Species Act, as well as captive breeding and reintroduction programs in protected habitats, eagle populations soared. By 1999 government scientists declared them a recovery success, and by 2007, with 9,789 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states, all but those in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert were downgraded from endangered status. Other animals have received similar aid, but they’re one of the few to claw their way back from the brink, a feat that confirms their admirable mettle—and which makes it especially sick and twisted that people might be out killing these survivors.
Bald eagle chicks. Image via public-domain-image.com.
Beyond their tenacious survival and their official status, bald eagles have a special spot in many American hearts because they are just as epic as many of us wish to be. Granted, Benjamin Franklin once called them birds of bad moral character for stealing carrion from other hawks and spooking at the approach of smaller birds. But I’m betting he had no idea what awesome feats these little bosses could perform. Rather than just stealing food, bald eagles can catch fish in aerial bombardments, standing like a heron, or take on anything up to the size of a rabbit if salmon’s not on the menu. With training, they may even be able to take out noxious drones.
Not ones to do things by half measures, they sometimes take their catches up to massive nests that weigh as much as 4,000 pounds and are often placed in the highest trees around. Full of an independent spirit that appeals to American sensibilities, bald eagles grow up fast and love to go it on their own. They’re inventive as hell: Although they can’t swim, they’ve figured out how to sit on the water and row with their wings. And even though they mate for life, their breeding rituals are daredevil stunts, locking claws in midair and cartwheeling toward the ground in a game of sexual chicken. And as if all of that weren’t enough to inspire extra-patriotic love for these birds, they take a mean selfie too.
Out of respect for their psychological value to the nation and ecological fortitude, even after taking bald eagles off the list of endangered species, the United States still affords them special protection. Under the modern Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, anyone harming the birds faces fines up to $100,000 and a year in prison. And the Migratory Bird Treaty Act throws another $15,000 and a year on top of that. Which is to say that if you mess with baldie, we’ll nail your ass to the wall.
Image via public-domain-image.com
Even with these protections, eagles still die. Some starve. Others drown when taking on a fish that’s too big, or electrocute themselves on power lines. But many others get shot by poachers or careless hunters, or hit by cars while eating roadkill (as did one on March 3 in the Potomac area, near the other dead birds, although he survived). All too often they’re accidentally poisoned by eating lead shot in abandoned hunting kills or poisoned pests or bait left out for other predators.
It’s likely that at least some of the 18 birds killed over the past month were poisoned. It’s also possible that this was accidental. But that’s not an excuse for causing such wanton suffering to any wild animal population, much less one we’re so invested in as a nation. So whoever killed these birds ought not plan to hide behind ignorance; we ought to send a message that this carelessness is intolerable by handing them the highest fine possible. Because nonchalant eco-violence ought to be unacceptable against any species. And also because eagles, ’Murica, ’nuff said.
Image by Carl Chapman via Wikimedia Commons