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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Field Note: Eagles At Play

Published: April 13, 2018


By Mark Seth Lender


A juvenile bald eagle perched in a tree (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

In this field note, Living on Earth’s Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender remarks on the powerful hold the American Bald Eagle has on our collective awe, and on how severely we have decimated their numbers in the centuries since Europeans landed on North America’s shores.

The first time you see an adult bald eagle an image is painted in the mind’s eye, the white head, the great wings beating in their slow and powerful way like the single rower in an Eakins painting. And each and every time thereafter it is that first vision, recalled. We seldom stop to question why we feel this way. At least part of the answer is rara avis; literally “Rare Bird.”

Some people will tell you eagles are doing fine. There are plenty. It’s just fine if wind power kills a hundred; five hundred. Or they will claim, as they do, that in some places bald eagles are a pestilence. Are we to be reassured? Enough to deny our own remarkable experience?

Before European contact there were bald eagles in North American by the hundreds of thousands. They were poisoned (advertently as pests, inadvertently by DDT), shot because ranchers thought they took livestock (they don’t) or for sport, or both; had their habitat destroyed. And the number of bald eagles plummeted. With the banning of DDT, and deliberate eradication of eagles constrained, the population rebounded. But by how much? Ten percent of what they were before? Twenty? Our perception of the eagle as exceptional rings true. In more ways than one.

LINK: Listen to the “Bald Eagles At Play” essay

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