A bald eagle at the West Virginia Wildlife Center (Photo by Monica Zalaznik / My Buckhannon)

Creature Feature: Five fun facts you might not know about bald eagles

FRENCH CREEK – Those looking to catch a glimpse of the national bird of the United States should look up in the trees, especially near large bodies of water — or visit the West Virginia Wildlife Center.

Wildlife Center biologist Trevor Moore said the zoological facility in French Creek currently houses two bald eagles — one was brought to the center in 2015 and the other was added last year.

“We get most of our birds from various raptor rehabilitation centers, so they both have damage in their wings,” Moore said. “One of them also has damage in their hip, and they can’t be released. They can’t do long sustained flights like they need to do for hunting, but they can do jumps, hops and flutters.”

Moore shared five interesting facts about the national bird.

1. Fish is on the menu

Bald eagles can be found throughout the United States, almost all of Canada and some of Mexico, so their diet varies depending on the region — but they can almost always be found near water.

“Over half of their diet is mostly going to be fish,” Moore said. “But they’ll eat other things, so they’ll eat mammals and carrion, and they’ve been known to follow coyotes and cougars for their kills. After they leave, then the eagles will come and pick a little bit too.”

2. They have huge nests

Bald eagle nests are some of the largest in the world. One nest was found to be 20 feet deep, 10 feet wide and weighed over a ton.

“That’s actually the main reason why they only nest in the same area for about three to five years, because they keep adding to it and keep improving it, and a lot of the time, that breaks the trees,” Moore said.

3. Like humans, they are not bald when young

Young bald eagles are harder to identify because they do not develop their iconic white ‘baldness’ until later in life.

“They don’t get the bald head until till they’re about four or five years old,” Moore said. “That’s when all the adult plumage finally comes through. Before that, they often get mistaken for golden eagles. The fun way that I always tell people how you can identify them is that bald eagle juveniles don’t wear pants, meaning they don’t have feathers that go all the way down their legs.”

4. That screech you heard in a movie probably wasn’t an eagle

“Another fun fact that I always tell people is that most of the time when you see bald eagles in movies and they have that real majestic screech, that is actually the red-tailed hawk,” Moore said. “Bald eagles have a very high pitched, squeaky sound that’s not really inspiring or majestic.”

5. In the mid-20th century, bald eagles were almost extinct

Bald eagles are still difficult to find in the wild due to a drastic drop in their population caused by DDT pesticides.

“It’s estimated in the 18th century that their populations were anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000, but by the 1950s, there were only 412 nesting pairs left in the whole U.S.,” Moore said. “That’s how bad the DDT pesticide was. Now the states that have the highest numbers of breeding pairs have just over 1,000, so Florida and Minnesota both have high numbers.”

Moore said DDT was introduced in the 1940s and it caused biomagnification, where particles or chemicals accumulate in animals, and then as those animals are consumed by other animals — predators higher up the food chain — the predators end up accumulating more of the deadly chemicals.

“To put that into perspective, something small like a crayfish will absorb some of the DDT chemicals, then those crayfish get eaten by a fish, which gets eaten by bigger fish and then that fish gets eaten by an eagle,” Moore said. “The eagles end up having large amounts of the chemical actually stored up in them just from eating other animals.”

He said DDT did not have a direct lethal effect against the eagles, but it hindered their ability to have children.

“It ended up messing with their calcium metabolization, so it either made them very sterile, or it made their eggs have super thin shells — so much so that when they sat on them to incubate, they would break their own eggs,” Moore said. “What it was doing was cutting off the eagles from the bottom. You have all these healthy adults who are reproducing and eating, but every time they lay eggs, they ended up killing their chicks just from doing their natural incubation. It was horrible. Then combine that with habitat loss and illegal hunting, and it just hammered the eagle population.”

In response to their dwindling numbers, strict regulations and penalties were put in place to protect the raptors. In the 1980s, Wests Virginia only had one or two nesting pairs of bald eagles. As of 2017, it was estimated by West Virginia Wildlife Center biologist Rich Bailey that there were about 100 or 200 nesting pairs in West Virginia. Moore said while they have a male and female at the center, there are no plans to breed the eagles because they are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.

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