About Bald Eagles
Bald eagles are known for their trademark, white heads, which stands out in contrast to its chocolate-brown body and wings. Its hooked, yellow beak and gray talons help the bird catch and kill its prey of choice: fish. Because of its diet, the bald eagle usually nests along seacoasts, near lakes, rivers and the Great Lakes shoreline. During the cold winter months, when ice forms on the water, the bird has been known to feed on waterfowl, small mammals, and even road-kill.
In Michigan, most bald eagles congregate in the northern parts of the state and the Upper Peninsula. However, they can be spotted in any county in the state and nesting sites have been documented in 63 of Michigan’s 83 counties! Once they have found their place to nest, they will most likely stay in that area. Similarly, once a bald eagle has found its mate, it will stay with that mate for the rest of its life.
Michigan History of the Bald Eagle
Before Europeans settled in Michigan, bald eagles probably made their nests all over the state, finding solace wherever food was available. However, as the state became more populated with humans, and hunter-gatherers started moving to the waters to find their main food sources, the bird became less prevalent in the state. It has been recorded that in the early 1900’s they were “generally distributed, “but “nowhere abundant.” Their population continued to decline through the mid 1900’s due to slow but consistent loss of suitable habitat and available food, as well as, predator control by humans. The presence of humans so close to their nests made bald eagles flee their nests, sometimes leaving behind unhatched eggs and eaglets. By 1959, most of the population was considered restricted to the northern half of the state.
In the 1950’s, the introduction and wide spread use of “new” pesticides containing DDT and PCB caused the near extinction of our national bird. DDT & PCB were man-made, toxic persistent chemicals that traveled up the aquatic food chain to bio-accumulate in the fat and muscle of top predators, like the bald eagle. These chemicals caused the birds to mate too late in the season or not at all, and if a bird did get the chance to mate, their eggs had birth defects, like thin egg shells which would crack in the nest and eggs that would not hatch. When the bald eagle population was at its worst, in 1967, only 38% of Michigan bald eagles were able to raise a single chick. Most scientists agree that in order for a population to maintain stable, the percentage should be closer to 70.
The decline of the bald eagle and many other wildlife species resulted in Congress banning the use of DDT and the establishment of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act in the early 1970’s. As the environmental conditions improved in the state, the Bald Eagle population began to rebound. By 1999, there were 343 nests that produced young in Michigan; however, some problems still exist. Many bald eagles that nest along the coast of the Great Lakes tend to have more contamination in their blood.
Because of its symbolic meaning to our country, it is a relief to know that the bald eagle will most likely have a future here in the United States. Thanks to the stewardship of many individuals across the country, the bald eagle will continue to soar above our Great Lake State.
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