ASHEVILLE — With 32 new nests discovered during the past 16 years, bald eagles are more common in western North Carolina than they have been in decades, providing a thrill for those fortunate enough to see them, and a challenge to keep that positive trend going.
For years, bald eagle populations struggled with habitat loss and chemical contamination, leading to a string of conservation efforts. In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, prohibiting the selling, killing, or possession of any part (feathers, talons, etc.) of the bird. The law was amended to include golden eagles, and is still in effect. Despite that protection, the U.S. population continued declining. In 1972, the insecticide DDT, which impacts the bird’s ability to form strong eggshells, was banned in the United States. Subsequently in 1978, bald eagles in the lower 48 states were provided protection under the Endangered Species Act when they were federally listed as endangered species.
In 1963, there were only 487 known nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Since the 1970s, bald eagle numbers have increased nationwide and in 2007 it was removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list, with nearly 10,000 known breeding pairs. Bald eagles are still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of our nation’s oldest wildlife laws which protects scores of migratory bird species.
Nesting bald eagles returned to western North Carolina in 1999, when a pair built a nest on the shore of Lake James. A few years later, another bald eagle nest was spotted on Lake Wylie in Gaston County.
“Bald eagles have been a tremendous success story,” said Chris Kelly, biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “Eagles have now been sighted in every western North Carolina county, with known nests in most of those counties.”
As eagles returned to western North Carolina, they first nested on or near major reservoirs and soon began spreading to large rivers. In recent years, several nests have been found along smaller creeks and streams. Bald eagles mate for life, usually returning to the same nest, and western North Carolina’s nesting eagles return to the region in late fall to early winter. More eagles mean a greater chance of viewing one, however for those fortunate enough to see an eagle in the wild, it’s important to not disturb the birds.
“Ultimately, you don’t want your presence to alter a bird’s behavior especially during periods of nesting and egg incubation,” said Bryan Tompkins, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Stay at least 1,000 feet from the nest, using binoculars or a spotting scope to get a closer look; keep noise down; avoid sudden movements; and don’t flush a bird from its nest. Watch the bird, and if it reacts to your presence, you’re too close. It’s also very important to respect any restricted zones or private property around a bald eagle nest.”
In addition to responsible viewing, area hunters can also help ensure that the population of bald eagles continues to increase in western North Carolina. When lead ammunition hits a target, some of the soft metal breaks away from the bullet as it travels through the animal. Bald eagles are scavengers and these toxic lead fragments are often ingested when they feed on animal carcasses or gut piles. Once lead enters the bloodstream, it damages a bird’s nervous system and paralyzes its digestive tract. According to the American Bird Conservancy, millions of birds across the U.S. are poisoned by lead every year. The most straight-forward way to avoid this issue is to switch to non-lead ammunition such as copper, tin and tungsten. Using non-lead options for ammunition benefits bald eagles and any animals that scavenge carcasses or gut piles. Another way hunters can help is by removing spent ammunition and fragments from any tissue left in the field and burying that tissue. Finally, never take a shot unless you can make the shot, and follow up to ensure harvested game is recovered and removed from the field.
People who find a bald eagle nest can report it to Chris Kelly at Christine.Kelly@ncwildlife.org.