Forty years ago the bald eagle was in danger of extinction throughout North America, but today the iconic U.S. emblem is an environmental success story. In addition, a handful of these rebounding raptors have become Internet celebrities, appearing on live streaming webcams across the country that allow anyone an up-close look into their giant nests.
The 2014 nesting season is at its peak, so now is the perfect time to watch eaglets hatch in the more northern regions and to see young eagles in the south test their wings on their first flights.
The adult birds often return to the same nests year after year, and lay up to three eggs, which hatch after about five weeks. Adults care for the growing eaglets for several months until the young take their first flight. Fledglings stay in or near the nest for an additional month or so.
Do Eagle Cams Help Eagles?
Some cameras have been set up by scientists for research and provide detailed data about the nesting behavior.
"What we're looking for are behavioral cycles: when and how long do the birds incubate, how long the incubation period is before hatching of chicks, what prey or other food items are being brought in to the chicks, how long before fledging [when chicks leave the nest], and what predators may take the eggs or young from nests," said Geoff LeBaron of the National Audubon Society. But LeBaron admits that public engagement may be even more important.
"All this information is well known by scientists for the birds of prey in general. Most of the value is entertainment and engagement with the public," he said.
While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't officially encourage or discourage the use of eagle nest cams, they see the broader benefit of people engaging with nature, even via their computers.
"Certainly there's conservation value in overall awareness and people caring about eagles and subsequently the rest of the world," says Drew Becker, an eagle biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service's Rock Island Field Office in Illinois. "Eagle cams and nest cams in general have just exploded in recent years."
And these windows into eagle life are helping the great outdoors reach people indoors. "A lot of folks who are interested in these cameras are maybe not the audience that we're typically reaching through hunting or coming to refuges or parks," Becker said.
Fall and Rise of Eagle Populations
With a natural range stretching from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, the bald eagle beat out the wild turkey to become the U.S. national emblem in the 18th century, when there may have been as many as 100,000 nesting birds.
A decline in prey in the 19th century shrank their numbers. They also faced direct pressure from humans, who killed them for sport and to protect farm animals and livestock from being eaten. Alaska actively encouraged hunting in the first half of the 20th century, paying 128,000 bounties of 50 cents to two dollars per dead eagle.
By 1940 the eagle population was in dire shape and the birds received their first federal protection, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
The years after World War II brought another challenge with the use of DDT, which has long been thought to weaken the shells of bald eagle eggs. Some experts now say the damage done to bald eagle populations by DDT may have been less drastic than previously believed since their numbers were already dangerously depleted.
In 1963 bald eagles hit their low point of 487 nesting pairs in the continental United States, but since then their numbers have rebounded to nearly 10,000 nesting pairs. As of 2007, they no longer needed statutory protection, and the species was removed from the list of threatened species safeguarded by the Endangered Species Act.
Despite the healthy numbers at the turn of the 21st century and the 2007 delisting, bald eagles are still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act.
Conservationists hope the interest that these popular webcams generate for bald eagles will help them continue to thrive.
"There are people who become as fanatic about the wildlife cams as they might about soap operas or other TV events," said the Audubon Society's LeBaron.
That's good for the birds in the eyes of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Becker, who believes the connection people feel to bald eagles helps motivate the public to get behind broader conservation efforts.
"People really could wrap their heads around why we need to preserve eagles. It's a good nexus to get people to care about the system as a whole," Becker explained. "I don't believe they would have recovered as quickly as they did if people didn't care."
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