Nature Connection #8 – Eagle Soar

Here in Tulsa we are so lucky to be able to see our national bird, The American Bald Eagle, all year long. Back from the verge of extinction, this bird is a success story! It  is now nesting in parts of the United States where it had virtually vanished in the 1960s.

One of the groups that researched and worked to return nesting populations of bald eagles to their natural habitats was the George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, Ok. (www.suttoncenter.org)
(This group currently has a LIVE Eagle cam on two eastern Oklahoma nest sites. Check it out at
http://www.suttoncenter.org/pages/live_eagle_camera.)

The bald eagle is the only eagle unique to North America. Though Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey was the best bird to represent the U.S., Thomas Jefferson lauded the eagle as a “free spirit, high soaring and couragious.”  Most people agreed with Jefferson; in 1792 the bald eagle became the national symbol of freedom and independence.

Like other large birds of prey, called raptors, the eagles are at the ‘top of the food chain’ and play an important natural role in controlling populations of small animals and fish, as well as assisting microorganisms with the disposal of animal carcasses.

In Jefferson’s time, hundreds of thousands of bald eagles lived in the U.S. But by 1963 its population in the lower 48 states had dwindled to fewer than one thousand nesting birds. Four years later, the bald eagle was classified as a federal endangered species in 43 of the lower 48 states.

These birds have made a successful comeback, but are far from being abundant. It’s important to note, though that it is illegal to shoot an eagle, or any large bird of prey. ( It is also illegal to shoot songbirds.) In addition to the importance of the bird due to its role in an ecosystem, eagles and hawks are important to the Native American cultures in the United States. These tribes may legally possess and use the feathers of these birds in cultural ceremonies. For anyone else, it is illegal.   

Recently, the Tulsa chapter of the Audubon Society hosted an Eagle Watch on the Arkansas River, in the park near the 71st street bridge. The eagles are frequently sighted along this river, where they soar on the thermal air currents above the river, and then dive into the water to catch fish. Their nests can be found at several locations on all sides of the river, including the stretch of water that flows from west to east on the north side of Bixby.

However, these amazing birds can be seen in unexpected places. At a recent visit to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, I saw three eagles sitting on the ground just to the east of Highway 60 near Pawhuska, and another soaring on thermals on the southern edge of the actual Preserve.

Watch for white heads, white tail feathers and a 6 foot plus wing span. Keep your eyes open and your binoculars handy. You never know when you’ll spot one of these magnificent birds!

Questions and Answers:
Q: What caused the Eagle to decline in numbers?
a: The Bald eagle, like other large birds of prey, or raptors, feeds on smaller animals. DDT, a pesticide used everywhere in the US during the 50s and 60s to kill insects on crops, was found to become residual in the bodies of insects and anything that ate them. This pesticide passed up the food chain, collecting in the fatty tissues of these animals. As the birds ate more and more insects and small animals that had accumulated  DDT in their body tissues, the birds began to ‘collect’ it, too. The chemicals in DDT affected thebirds reproductive systems, making it impossible for the animals to nest successfully. Birds became sterile. Baby bird eggs (embryos) were laid with very thin eeggshells, or no shells at all. Few chicks survived even long enough to fly from their nest. Population numbers plummeted.

Q: Is DDT still in use?
a: This pesticide was banned from use in the United States in 1972. However, American chemical companies still make this pesticide in their overseas plants, and it is universally used as a pesticide, particularly for mosquito control in areas where malaria is a major health concern.

(Information in this piece was partially taken from “Annual Feast” in the book, A Journey for All Seasons, published by The Nature Conservancy, 2000.)

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