The largest and most majestic bird we admit and treat at our shelter in Newport is America’s national bird and national animal, the American Bald Eagle. Before 1982, North Carolina had no breeding pairs, but due to eagle restoration work and eagle population expansion in neighboring states, North Carolina now has more than 125 nesting pairs. Since Bald Eagles are becoming more plentiful in North Carolina, we are increasingly seeing injuries in this species. Most recently an eagle was spotted walking in a field for a few days. Raptors will land when hunting, although eagles usually fish, so it’s unusual to see them in the same place and on the ground for days in a row. Ryan Taylor, Carteret County Wildlife Enforcement Officer, got involved and managed to capture the mature eagle, who could not fly, and transport him to our shelter. After a thorough examination, including x-rays, we found a dislocated elbow. He must have been in a lot of pain, but wild animals hide their suffering from other animals, including humans, who could possibly do them more harm if they appear distressed or injured. We gave the Bald Eagle anti-inflammatories, fluids and contacted the Carolina Raptor Center in Charlotte to see if an eagle size enclosure was available to house our recently admitted Bald Eagle for an extended stay. After stabilizing our patient, one of our volunteers (subject author) headed over the road with eagle in tow to meet a Carolina Raptor Center volunteer at a half-way point, which happened to be Winterville. The exchange went as planned and the eagle is in the Raptor Center’s care for the recovery time required. When healed and ready to travel, he will be returned to our coastal area for release. It is thought that eagles mate for life, so his partner might still be waiting for him. Speaking of bird relationships, Bald Eagle courtship is quite an impressive show involving elaborate, spectacular calls and flight displays that include swoops, chases and cartwheels. They have been seen flying high, locking talons, free falling and separating just before hitting the ground. Their call consists of rapid-fire, chirping whistles, kleek kik ik ik ik, somewhat similar in cadence to a gull’s call. Younger birds’ calls tend to be more harsh and shrill than adults. Bald Eagles are big. Although North Carolina eagles aren’t as large as Alaskan eagles, they still stand up to 40 inches tall with a 6 to 7 foot wingspan. Females are generally 25% larger than males. The only larger species of raptor-like birds is the California Condor. Something interesting to note is Bald Eagles increase in size the further they are located away from the Equator and the tropics which, coincidentally, is in keeping with Bergmann’s Rule. Bald Eagles are not actually bald. ‘Bald’ makes reference to the “white feathered head” that becomes evident in maturity, which occurs between 4 and 5 years of age. The yellow eyed adult is dark brown with white head and tail. Their yellow hooked beak is large and their feather free feet are also bright yellow. Eagle toes are short but bear extremely long talons. The plumage of the immature eagle is brown and it sports a black, yellow-tipped beak. You will find Bald Eagles, also called Sea Eagles, mainly near large bodies of open water with an abundant fish supply. Although fish comprise the majority of their diet, the Bald Eagle is an opportunistic carnivore who will dine on a variety of prey such as mammals, eggs and other birds, mainly water birds. They are also known to engage in kleptoparasitism, which means they have the rude habit of pirating prey from other predators. If meals are hard to come by they will scavenge campsites, picnics or garbage dumps. Healthy adult Bald Eagles are not preyed upon in the wild, so they are considered apex predators, alphas, right up there with alligators, grizzlies and Orcas. These huge raptors require old-growth coniferous or hardwood trees for nesting. The Bald Eagle builds the largest nest of any North American bird and the largest tree nest ever recorded for any animal species was found in Florida and measured 20 feet deep, 10 feet wide, weighed more than 2000 pounds and belonged to mated Bald Eagles. Selected trees must have good visibility, close proximity to prey and be over 66 feet tall, unless built over a swamp. Those trees can be shorter. The same nest may be used for years but usually less than 5 years due to degeneration from weather and the elements. Bald eagles breed earlier than most birds. Egg laying is often late February and both males and females take turns incubating the eggs, although the female does most of the incubation. The parent not incubating will hunt for food or look for nesting material, mainly large sticks, during this stage. Eagles usually lay 2 to 3 speckled ivory, tennis ball size eggs in staggered, one a day succession. Hatching occurs from mid April to early May with youngsters fledging late June to early July. Youngster eagles learn everything from their parents through observation and sometimes, tough love is necessary before they will venture from the nest to acquire their own meal. Instinct is one thing, honed skill is another. A young eagle will spend its first 4 years wandering North America looking for summering and wintering areas where food is accessible and eventually settling within 250 miles of the nest where the eagle hatched after choosing a mate. The average lifespan of Bald Eagles in the wild is 20 to 25 years, with the oldest confirmed at 28 years. In captivity, they often live longer. One captive Bald Eagle is said to have lived nearly 50 years. Eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, both federal wildlife statutes. Violations of these statutes carry maximum criminal penalties up to $100,000 and/or one year in federal prison. January is National Bald Eagle Watch Month across the country and now, North Carolina is a good place to watch Bald Eagles, thanks to restoration projects. One of the first conservation projects undertaken in our state was restoring Bald Eagles at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in 1983. The last update from the Carolina Raptor Center declares our dislocated elbow eagle is doing very well and should make a full recovery. Although we are lacking “Mountains High” on our coast, we will still be able to see “Where Eagles Fly” when our big boy returns sometime early 2014. There is so much to know about this extraordinary animal and unfortunately, it can’t all be said here.
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!! Wishing you the best that life has to offer in 2014 and beyond!
Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of “Save Them All“