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We Saved Them…

But for how long?

For more than a month, people from all over the country (and the world) have clicked links to watch a pair of Bald Eagles nesting in a tree in the U.S. National Arboretum. The nest contained two eggs, which the adults turned and incubated attentively. Until, that is, two weeks ago. That’s when two eaglets (DC2 and DC3) hatched from those eggs, delighting the many fans following the nesting activities from afar. Now we’re watching adults bring fish back to the nest and feeding themselves and the growing chicks.

That’s the good Bald Eagle news, a developing story that hopefully will allow us to see the two chicks fledge, learn to fly, and head off on their own.

But a less endearing story has also begun to unfold. Less than two weeks after the adult female laid the first of her two eggs, police found thirteen dead Bald Eagles in a Maryland field, about 30 miles away from the arboretum. Necropsies indicated that the eagles had not died from natural causes. I haven’t found any updates indicating what may have caused their deaths, but if foul play wasn’t suspected, two organizations—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and American Bird Conservancy—probably wouldn’t have offered rewards totaling $30,000 “for information that leads to an arrest and conviction of those responsible for the deaths of 13 bald eagles in Maryland.”

And that reward may climb higher after the discovery of eleven additional dead or distressed Bald Eagles in Delaware. Five of those eagles died; officers captured three; and the remainder flew off. While a Delaware rescue facility treats the three sick eagles still alive (and Audubon reports that the conditions of all three have improved), the state’s Natural Resources Police continue to investigate the incident but still don’t know what killed or sickened the Bald Eagles they collected and/or captured.

I have to ask. What could possibly motivate someone to poison (or kill by other means) a bird as magnificent as the American Bald Eagle? A creature that couldn’t possibly pose them any harm. Let alone one that has represented the country as its national symbol for 234 years.

Mind you, Bald Eagles face enough perils trying to survive through another day as it is. In the 1950s, Bald Eagles faced extinction due to DDT poisoning. “By 1963,” according to a Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet on the Bald Eagle, “with only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining, the species was in danger of extinction. Loss of habitat, shooting, and DDT poisoning contributed to the near demise of our national symbol.” In 2013, natural pathogens proved culpable in an mortality incident in Utah when more than two dozen Bald Eagles died after contracting West Nile Virus. And who knows what effect the Zika Virus, another infectious pathogen spread by, in this case, an invasive mosquito species, may have on Bald Eagles and other native bird species, as it moves into the U.S. in coming months.

And then consider the staggering annual avian mortality numbers—all anthropogenic in nature—reported by Sibley Guides:

window strikes kill as many as 976 million birds a year
collisions with communication towers and high tension lines may cause as many as 224 million deaths a year
electrocutions kill “tens of thousands of birds a year” on high tension lines, particularly such raptors as Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles
collisions with cars claim as many as 60 million birds every year
wind turbine collisions claim as many as 33,000 birds a year
poisonings—from such sources as pesticides, oil spills, exposed oil and wastewater pits, and lead poisoning—account for 75 million (or more) bird deaths a year
licensed hunting (largely waterfowl) takes 15 million birds a year [but “is balanced by extensive and well-funded management and conservation efforts” which has resulted in net gains to the environment and to numerous bird species, as Sibley notes]
domestic and feral cats “may kill 500 million birds per year or more” [and such simple and inexpensive actions as belling the cats could mitigate this huge annual death toll]
by-catch claims the lives of “tens to hundreds of thousands of seabirds [that] are caught each year in nets and on hooks intended for fish”

The above doesn’t even consider the numbers of birds that have died or had their numbers drastically reduced because of habitat loss. Or that will lose their habitat, their food sources, or both due to climate change.

So let’s all celebrate and cherish the Bald Eagles. After all, their very existence offers testimony to our determination to save species from extinction. It’s something of a miracle that we can still marvel as they effortlessly soar high above our heads, perch in tree tops, or bring new generations into existence. Because we came perilously close to losing these majestic creatures forever.

For more information about Bald Eagles (and birds in general), see the articles below:

The Bald Eagle Cam
Your Break from Politics: Watch an Eagle Being Hatched
Eaglet Emerges at National Arboretum, Live on a Webcam
Both Bald Eagle Chicks Have Hatched
Discovery of 13 dead bald eagles in Maryland sparks federal investigation
American Bird Conservancy Offers Reward in Bald Eagle Deaths
What is Killing the Bald Eagles
More Bald Eagles Have Died
5 Bald Eagle Deaths Reported in Delaware
Officials Shocked as More Bald Eagles Turn Up Dead in the Northeast
Fact Sheet: Natural History, Ecology, and History of Recovery
Causes of Eagle Deaths
Bald Eagle Deaths: Mysterious Illness Leaves Close to 20 Dead in Utah
Soaring Deaths of Bald Eagles in Utah Attributed to West Nile Virus
Bald eagle deaths may be on the rise with population
American Bald Eagle Information
Sibley Guides (on avian mortality)
American Bird Conservancy
Audubon Society