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Buffer preserve to celebrate saving eagles

By Sandra Chafin Guest Columnist

Are you familiar with National Days celebrated across the US? There are 1,500 National Days celebrated throughout the year for varied reasons and causes. On Saturday, Jan. 16, the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve will recognize the National Save the Eagles Day.

You might be more familiar with the National American Eagle Day to honor our national symbol. This day in June is set aside to encourage action to restore eagles habitats, and for educational outreach.

This recognized day in January all began with an earnest attempt in 2015 to save two eagles in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, named Alice and Al, that nested near a landfill which posed health risks to these eagles. Development was set to remove the tree where Alice and Al resided, so the community and the Bergen County Audubon Society began an organized campaign to… Save the Eagles!

It worked. Alice and Al were saved and remained in a Preserve which became an eagle park.

With 60 species spread throughout the world it is interesting to note that in America the two most common species are the bald eagle and golden eagle. Hawaii is our only state not having any eagles. Alaska has a lot of eagles and they are gorgeous. North, Central, and South America only account for 14 species.

For several years there was an eagle nest on the preserve in a large cypress tree. Friends’ past president, Lynda White has presented programs at the preserve and Port St. Joe Library on these birds of prey. If you have the opportunity to attend one, do so. The pictures and stories are phenomenal.

From the tower near our Visitor Center and the deck at the preserve offices, eagles sometime are seen just sitting in the bay and are fun to watch. They delight us by flying over the deck and our offices quite often.  We have observed them sitting in the bay as if just waiting for dinner to swim by for their next meal.

Eagle on the ground

It has been said Benjamin Franklin wanted the national symbol to be the turkey, however, the eagle won that one. Majestic is a word used repeatedly when discussing eagles. In Franklin’s day there were 15,000 eagles. Estimates of 100,000 were made in later years.

In the year 1787, the bald eagle was declared the national symbol of America. President John F. Kennedy once remarked that, “the strength, independence and beauty of this eagle were symbolic of all that America stood for.”

In 1963 there were only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining in the United States, as reported by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Commission. So, what happened to put them on the endangered list from 1967 to 1995?

One train of thought, and many believe this, is that ignorance and greed started the decline in the eagle population. Contributing to that was the use of DDT as a pesticide which severely affected eagle populations. There appear to be other contributing factors adding to the decline, such as ignorance, because people did not factor in that when habitats are destroyed, animals cannot survive.

Recognizing that pesticides are extremely harmful to living creatures and over time can result in extinction of the species was a great help to saving eagles. Developments removing the homes of a species also provide the road to being eradicated permanently.

The saga of Alice and Al ends on a happy note, thank goodness, and hopefully has opened the eyes of those who destroy with thinking of all the consequences.   

By 2007, eagles were declared safe and listed as “least concern” category. What a testament to the scientists, volunteers, organizations fighting for their survival.

It seems such a shame that the symbol of freedom and strength had suffered such restriction and had weakened to the degree of distinction.

An eagle breakfast

Do eagles still need protection? Pollution still poses a problem for eagles, i.e., when eating animals shot with buckshot, they can contract lead poisoning. National Save the Eagles Day reminds us to take extra-care and protect these magnificent birds of prey.

Some interesting facts regarding eagles today:

Someone caught with a bald eagle or golden eagle feathers or body parts are subject to a $5,000 fine for the first offense. A $10,000 fine results in a second infraction. Hunters are reminded to take care.

The name bald eagle seems to indicate they are bald. The young bald eagles are bald. Later in life their brown head feathers turn white.

Adult bald eagles are dark brown body with a distinctive white head and tail. After about five years the young eagles acquire the adult plumage.

Bald eagles live from 15 to 30 years in the wild, with the oldest known at least 38 years old. In 2015, it was killed when a car hit it. Being banded in 1977, its age could be calculated.

Eagle in a tree

How can one tell the difference between a bald and golden eagle? No, it’s not Auburn and Mississippi Southern University attire they are wearing. Actually, Auburn uses a Golden Eagle named Aurea and a bald eagle named Spirit for football games. The eagle flying around the field is a war cry dating from the 1860s. Eagles are not the mascot at Auburn. Seymour d’Campus is the name of the modern-day mascot eagle at Southern Mississippi. While these two schools are popular there are many schools using eagles as their mascot.

Back to original question, how can one tell the difference between a bald and golden eagle?

Even in early years of life, it’s easy to distinguish the two types by noticing the legs of these eagles.

Only the tops of the bald eagle’s legs have feathers. Looking at the golden eagles you see feathers along entire length of their legs.

Eagles are monogamous, mating for life, returning to their nest year after year. They build nests in tops of trees and usually enlarge the nest each year. They have more than one nest within their breeding territory.

Eagles may travel great distances however; they usually return to the breeding grounds within 100 miles of where they were raised.

Backyard eagle

Take time to get out in nature and observe these magnificence and majestic birds. Walk the trails beginning with Treasure Road and you might be one of the lucky ones to see our eagles. Sitting in the tower at just the right time will reward you greatly with eagles flying around. 

Sadly, our Visitor Center is closed at this time however, the trails are assessable most days. If you observe signs notifying you of prescribed burning taking place, try another trail and/or come back another time.

Many thanks to Marcy and Richard Trahan for the extraordinary pictures taken recently of eagles near the preserve.