Bald eagle populations are bouncing back

bald-eagle cvrestan/Shutterstock

Like a lot of cottagers, Charles Broley needed a hobby when he retired to Lower Beverley Lake, Ont. It was 1938, and the former banker and amateur naturalist took the advice of an ecologist friend and began climbing giant trees and banding bald eagles.

“He used to go out to an eagle tree right on the road, here,” recalls longtime Lower Beverley cottager Dave Johnson, now 73. “I remember when he died, and I remember seeing eagle nests.”

By the time Broley died, in 1959, he’d banded more than 1,200 birds in Ontario and near his winter home in Florida. It was groundbreaking work, as Broley tracked the birds’ foraging and migratory behaviour. When a wave of hatch failures followed the release of a new pesticide called DDT, Broley was among the first to connect the dots.

We know how the story played out. Due largely to DDT, “we almost lost one of North America’s most charismatic raptors,” says Jody Allair, a former eagle biologist and now the national manager of conservation outreach with Bird Studies Canada.

The nadir came in 1980, a few years after use of the pesticide was severely curtailed. By then, Southern Ontario’s eagle population was reduced to just three pairs on Lake Erie’s north shore. None of them were able to hatch chicks. Fortunately, eagles and ospreys were on the cusp of a remarkable turnaround, as pesticide levels ebbed in the fish they rely on. In this past decade, bald eagle numbers “have really leapt up, and we’ve seen a big increase,” Allair says—so much so that in 2009 Ontario shifted the bald eagle from “endangered” to “special concern,” the least-imperilled level for species at risk.

Since 2011, the BSC no longer monitors the population. But when tracking ended, the group logged 71 bald eagle pairs and 57 active nests in the region from the Bruce Peninsula to the Ottawa River. He estimates that there are now about 100 pairs, with 75 to 80 occupied nests. Throughout cottage country, the birds are an increasingly common sight, as they hunt for fish and waterfowl or scout for carrion. “We haven’t seen these kind of numbers for a long time—longer than most people can remember,” Allair says. “There are lots of things to be concerned about in the bird world right now, but this is a good news story.”

Back on Lower Beverley, Dave Johnson saw “nine different eagles over the course of a week,” last winter. “They’re such splendid creatures—so great to see flying and soaring.” Charles Broley would be pleased.

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