by Conservation Agent Michael Collins
The Bald Eagle, haliaeetus leucocephalus, is a majestic bird of prey that flaunts an undeniably large wingspan and signature snow white head and tail. Mature bald eagles also have a dark brown body, a large-hooked bill, strong talons, and the irises of the eyes are yellow in color. Echoes of their voice can be heard upon the waters this beautiful state – whether you’re on the scenic Ozark rivers, farming on the rolling hills of North Missouri, jigging for crappie on Lake Show-Me, or observing the restored marshes and wetlands of the state as they forage on fish or carrion. In 1782, bald eagles were enacted as our national symbol – with purpose. Bald eagles brandish one of the greatest conservation success stories in history.
Historically, about 20,000 pairs of bald eagles nested in the United States; however, by the 1950s, it is estimated that only 3,000 pairs were nesting. This traumatic decline was likely due to human encroachment, habitat destruction, environmental contamination, and open pursuit. Today, over 10,000 pairs of bald eagles nest in the United States. According to a 2010 population estimate, there are about 200 that can be observed, statewide, in Missouri. With these numbers, bald eagles remain as an uncommon migrant. Bald eagles have made a dramatic comeback on our continent, but their presence is still vulnerable within our state.
The major driving factor for this conservation success story was the engagement of the Eagle Protection Act, enacted in 1940. This act makes it a felony to shoot a bald eagle.
“Take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, at any time or any manner, any bald eagle … [or any golden eagle], alive or dead, or any part, nest, or egg thereof.” The Act defines “take” as “pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb (16 U.S.C. 668-668c).
“Disturb,” as defined by the code, means, “to agitate or bother a bald or golden eagle to a degree that causes, or is likely to cause, based on the best scientific information available, 1) injury to an eagle, 2) a decrease in its productivity, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior, or 3) nest abandonment, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior.” Not only immediate impacts, but also long-term impacts are prohibited under this act.
Persons violating the Eagle Protection Act can receive a fine of $100,000 ($200,000 for organizations), imprisonment for one year, or both. Subsequent violations will result in substantially steeper penalties.
Now that you know about the Eagle Protection Act, let’s revisit what makes these birds so intriguing. Bald eagles have lived up to 50 years in captivity. In the wild, eagles may only live up to 30 years. One of the largest birds of prey in the world, bald eagles have 6 to 8 foot wingspan and are 2 to 3 feet tall, weighing 8 to 15 pounds. Adult eagles will usually produce two white eggs (and sometimes three) in March or April each year. Both parents incubate the eggs for 34 to 40 days. By 10 to 11 weeks of age, eaglets are feathered, nearly full grown and able to fly from the nest. Eagles prefer large sycamore trees to build their nests in. Each year, the pair adds to the nest and it can become the largest of any North American bird. The national record nest is 20 feet deep and 10 feet wide, weighing an estimated 2 tons! In Missouri, nests are usually smaller because of the size of our trees.
The distinctive white head and tail mark an adult – a sexually mature bird that is at least four to five years old. Younger birds vary from solid dark brown, to mottled brown and white plumage. Males and females are colored alike. Eagles fly 20 to 40 miles per hour in normal flight, but can reach speeds of more than 100 miles per hour while diving. Powerful feet with needle-sharp, 2-inch talons are used to take prey. How powerful? Try over 5 times stronger than most men. At 2,500 lbs/in2, they possess enough strength in their feet to drive a nail!
I will be conducting eagle surveys this winter, so stay tuned for a Scotland County update. As always, the Missouri Department of Conservation encourages you to explore nature and enjoy what makes this state so great. Next time you see an eagle, consider the conservation of our national symbol – a tribute to freedom and our country’s strength.