Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle by Bill Bergen
© Bill Bergen
Haliaeetus leucocephalus
The Bald Eagle, the symbol of American freedom, is a bird that requires no introduction. Ever since its adoption by the founders of our country as the national emblem, its figure has adorned much of our money and all kinds of displays and posters of a patriotic nature. The Bald Eagle is a powerful and stately bird that fulfills most of the symbolic attributes assigned to it. Benjamin Franklin, however, in his usual great wisdom on all matters, was aware from the outset of one defect. He knew that the Bald Eagle is not averse to eating carrion, and because of this he argued for the adoption of that most magnificent of all North American game birds, the Wild Turkey, as the national bird. Despite the soundness of Franklin's opinions on nearly all matters, it is difficult to envision the portrait of a turkey on a quarter or five-dollar bill, much less on a national defense poster or a Marine Corps emblem.
The Bald Eagle's lack of disdain for carrion has been the main cause of its ill repute among livestock owners in some sections of the country and even here in our own state. Wolves or wild dogs, or often natural causes bring about the death of a lamb or newborn calf. Later a Bald Eagle is seen feeding on the carcass and is blamed for the actual kill. As a matter of fact, the chief food of the Bald Eagle is fish, which it either catches itself or steals from the Osprey. Many times I have observed a Bald Eagle perched quietly on a dead snag on the side of a bay or lagoon, while an Osprey circled out over the water in search of a fish. Suddenly the Osprey would plunge downward, hit the water with a terrific splash, and then reappear amid the spray with a fish in its talons. As the Osprey would begin to wing its way toward its favorite perch or its nest, the Bald Eagle would be seen to leave its lookout and to fall in behind the Osprey. Almost invariably when the eagle drew near, the Osprey would drop its fish, although I have never known an eagle actually to touch its victim. Generally the eagle follows the fish to the ground, but sometimes it may be seen to swoop down and pick the fish out of the air. When an eagle catches its own fish, it comes down in a terrific power dive but never strikes the water as does an Osprey. The descent ends just above the surface, and only the talons dip into the water to extract the prey.
Because fish are their favorite food, Bald Eagles are seldom found far from water, and their nests, which are massive structures of sticks that are added to from year to year, are usually built in trees along a shore. Mating takes place in late fall, and in our state the two dull white or pale bluish white unmarked eggs are usually laid before Christmas. The young eaglets spend three months in the nest before they make their first flight. The full adult plumage, characterized by an all-white head and tail, is not acquired until after four or five years. In this interim period, the immature is not easily distinguished from the Golden Eagle. Bald Eagles are fully protected by state and federal laws, and not even museums are allowed to collect specimens for exhibition purposes. The killing of one of them is punishable by a severe fine, by imprisonment, or by both. The Bald Eagle deserves all the protection it can get, for it is now apparently much less numerous than it was in former years. Its current status in Louisiana is that of a decidedly uncommon resident. As one of the species whose ability to reproduce successfully has been diminished by the effect of pesticides, it is now on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's "Red List" -- species considered in imminent danger of extinction unless every possible preventive measure is taken. Ray Aycock, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been keeping a close tabulation of all verifiable reports Bald Eagles in the state. In 1972 he came up with a truly astounding total of 48 individuals, although be could not eliminate the possibility that some duplication was involved. He also had reports of six or seven active nests, some of which he was personally able to confirm.
The Bald Eagle is infrequently seen in Louisiana in June, July, and August. Even in Florida, where the species is still present in some numbers as a breeding bird, records in summer are few except in Everglades National Park in the extreme southern part of the state. The remarkable eagle-banding efforts of Charles L. Broley in that state finally solved the mystery of the bird's diminution in summer. As a result of banding 814 Bald Eagles in Florida between 1939 and 1946, he received reports of recoveries of 48 individuals, 10 in Florida and the remainder at some point north of Florida. More than a third of the birds were recovered at least a thousand miles away. From this evidence one can conclude that part of the Bald Eagle population of Florida migrates north in late spring and summer. The scarcity of the bird in Louisiana at that time is possibly explainable on the same basis. --George H. Lowery, Jr., 1974, Louisiana Birds

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