In 1963, bald eagles reached their lowest population in the U.S. with only 417 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. A report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 2021, estimated that number reached roughly 300,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states, more than a 700 percent increase in the number of eagles in nearly six decades. The bald eagle is truly one of the greatest conservation success stories.
Found only in North America, the bald eagle is one of the largest birds of prey in North America, similar in size to the golden eagle.
In Colorado, about 200 pairs of eagles call the Centennial State home. That number surges to more than 1,000 eagles in winter when many migrate south to Colorado’s milder climate. These warmer temps keep more water open where they can hunt fish. Colorado also has a large prairie dog population that eagles will eat when fish are not as abundant.
At one time, bald eagles were nearly driven to extinction. In 1917, when bald eagles were considered a menace because of a false belief that they fed on chickens, lambs and other livestock, the government sponsored a bounty of 50 cents a bird. This amount was later raised to one dollar a bird, leading to more than 120,000 eagles confirmed killed.
By the 1960s, the bald eagle population, along with other birds, had been impacted even further by the use of DDT, the first of the modern synthetic insecticides. DDT would run off into ground water, infecting fish in the water. When the eagles ate the fish, the DDT was transferred to the makeup of the eggs, causing thin eggshells. Eggs would fail when the adults sat on them and thus the birthrate plummeted.
Over the years, habitat loss also contributed to the population decline of bald eagles.
The bald eagle was placed on the threatened and endangered species list in 1967.
In 1972, DDT was banned in the U.S.
The population of bald eagles has since recovered thanks to that effort to ban the implicated insecticide and other conservation efforts, including the dedication of a wide range of organizations, individuals, public land agencies and private landowners working towards common conservation goals.
In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list.
The U.S. Congress designated the bald eagle as the national symbol of the U.S. in 1782 as part of the Great Seal of the U.S. Although not a popular decision by all members – it is well known Benjamin Franklin was not a fan of the choice, preferring the wild turkey instead – the eagle has historically been considered a symbol of strength and a sacred species, including by Roman legions and American Indian people.
Bald eagles are an iconic bird with a wingspan of more than 7 feet and a distinct “bald” head. Although not truly bald, their head is rather covered in white feathers giving the impression of being bald. Bald eagles do not develop this recognizable feature until about the age of five. Up until then, the immature birds molt through a series of dark brown and mottled brown and white feathers on their head.
In Estes Park, look for the resident pair of bald eagles near Lake Estes where they feed on the abundant fish in the lake. They sit on the power line towers or on the bare branches of snags around the lake.
With Lake Estes being so low, and thus fish being closer to the surface, a few migratory eagles have arrived as well.
Dawn Wilson is a professional and award-winning nature photographer and writer who lives in Estes Park year-round. You can see more of her work, join one of her Rocky tours, purchase prints and calendars, or suggest future topics at DawnWilsonPhotography.com.