The Science of Sustainability

Ohio’s Bald Eagle Comeback

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Photographer Al Freeman caught this bald eagle family at home in a tree behind Old Dutch Tavern in Sandusky, Ohio, near Lake Erie, in 2009. Credit: Al Freeman

Photo Credit: Al Freeman

The appearance of three new bald eagle nests made headlines in Ohio this summer. Why is this newsworthy?

When you think of bald eagles, you might imagine these national birds diving into rivers in America’s Pacific Northwest or perched atop a tall pine tree in Florida. In Alaska, the giant raptors seem to be everywhere.

But in Ohio and other parts of the Midwest that were once home to many of these majestic creatures, populations are a far cry from what they once were — a remnant of the bald eagle’s brush with extinction.

An adult bald eagle takes a break in a tree on Cedar Point Causeway in Erie County, Ohio earlier this spring. Credit: Al Freeman

An adult bald eagle takes a break in a tree on Cedar Point Causeway in Erie County, Ohio earlier this spring. Credit: Al Freeman

Before settlers arrived, bald eagles were plentiful all along Ohio’s Lake Erie coast, but population growth on the shoreline took away habitat and reduced their numbers. In the 1970s bald eagles nearly disappeared from Ohio and the rest of the lower 48 states, mainly because of the insecticide DDT. As a result of years of heavy spraying, DDT built up in the environment and in small animals like rodents and fish. When the eagles ate these small animals, DDT accumulated in their bodies, too. As a result, female eagles laid eggs with very thin shells. The weight of the nesting bird would crack the eggs, killing the chicks.

Although DDT was banned in 1972, it took some time for eagle populations to rebound. Only four nesting pairs of bald eagles could be found in the Buckeye State in 1979.

By 1995 the birds had recovered so well that they were removed from the Endangered Species List. The Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act, first written in 1940 and amended many times since, continues to help ensure their survival.

This graph illustrates the growth in the estimated number of bald eagle nesting pairs in Ohio in the past fourteen years. Credit: ODNR

This graph illustrates the growth in the estimated number of bald eagle nesting pairs in Ohio in the past fourteen years. Credit: ODNR

Ohio’s bald eagle population continues to grow steadily today, thanks to the careful management of habitat and protection of nests, but local wildlife experts remain vigilant. Each new nest is a cause for celebration among bird and nature lovers. A Bald Eagle Nesting Survey by the Ohio Division of Wildlife estimates that there are 190 nests in the state in 2013. Eagle watchers have always found the greatest number of these birds along the shore of Lake Erie and the adjacent marshes of northwest Ohio, but now the number of nests is increasing farther inland.

Two of the new nests that made headlines this summer are in Summit County, about 20 miles south of Lake Erie. It’s the home of Akron, Ohio’s fifth largest city with nearly 200,000 people. But the county also contains a large portion of Cuyahoga Valley National Park plus 9,000 acres of metropolitan parks. Park officials there say they knew about the new nests for months, but waited to announce the discoveries until nature disguised the locations with leaves.

Why the waiting period?

According to Mike Johnson, Chief of Natural Resources Management for Metro Parks, Serving Summit County, humans pose the greatest threat to the success of nesting eagles. The reason is simple. Eggs and hatchlings need to be kept warm, and babies need to be fed constantly. Curious humans who venture too close to a nest can keep the parents away from their duties, jeopardizing the health of the baby eagles. Too many humans nearby can even cause bald eagles to abandon a nest completely.

This bald eagle family took up residence on a public golf course in Ohio's Pickaway County, not far from the state capital of Columbus, in 2008.  Credit:  Tim Daniel ODNR/Wildlife.

This bald eagle family took up residence on a public golf course in Ohio's Pickaway County, not far from the state capital of Columbus, in 2008. Credit: Tim Daniel ODNR/Wildlife.

“The biggest challenge is a human challenge,” says Johnson, “trying to educate people about why we need to leave [the eagles] alone.”

While delivering a recent update, Johnson said that they saw bald eagles sitting on the nest in Gorge Metro Park, but they never saw chicks, and now that nest has been abandoned. But two chicks did make a recent appearance in a nest near a towpath in the town of Clinton.

Why did one nest do well while the other nest failed? Just as in real estate, the answer might be location, location, location. Gorge Metro Park is on the edge of Akron. It is a small park with many visitors and close to a noisy highway. Mike thought it was a bad site for bald eagles, although the birds did manage to pick the one spot that you couldn’t see from the trail. The Clinton nest is more rural and close to a water source and an abundant food supply. It is less frequented by people and a better fit for the eagles’ habitat needs.

Although only one of the nests yielded chicks, park officials are thrilled. “Every new nest is a victory for conservation and recovery,” says Johnson. “It shows what can be achieved through recovery efforts — the ultimate success story.”

Additional Links

Ohio Division of Wildlife Life History Notes: Bald Eagle

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Chart and Table of Bald Eagle Breeding Pairs in Lower 48 States

American Bald Eagle Information

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Blog, Environment

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Jean O'Malley

About the Author ()

Jean O’Malley is the producer of NewsDepth, an award-winning weekly news program viewed by thousands of Ohio students each year in grades three to eight. This series is now in its 42nd year of broadcast at WVIZ/PBS ideastream. Jean has a B.A. from Carnegie Mellon University.
  • http://www.jacquelinedeely.com Jacqueline Deely

    Wonderful to hear and see!