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Regal Eagles

The soaring symbol of a nation has found a quiet home in the secluded woods of East Texas.

By Gary Clark

Few birds draw attention like a bald eagle. How mesmerizing it is to see this mighty master of the sky soaring on a wingspan stretching 7 to 8 feet while flashing a gleaming white head and tail. It can reach speeds of 40 mph in level flight and 100 mph in a dive as it swoops down to seize a flying duck or to snatch a fish out of a lake.

The profile of the 3-foot-tall bird commands respect as it perches erect and proud on a tree limb or on a power pole or even on a mound of earth. But whether it is flying or perched, you can always differentiate a bald eagle from any other bird — it’s the one that gives you goose bumps.

People living in East Texas are getting goose bumps more and more frequently as nesting populations of bald eagles rebound in that part of the state. Chris Gregory, a wildlife field biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says, “In 2005, we monitored 100 active nesting pairs of bald eagles in the East Texas region that produced 127 young to fledgling age. Each pair had one to several nests within their territory, and out of the total nesting territories, about 80 percent were active.”

Twenty years ago, the outlook for bald eagles in East Texas was grim. Nesting territories had plummeted to only four locations, and in 1995 nesting territories had only increased to 21. Eagles were a rare sight in the pine forest. But a dramatic increase in the birds began as the 20th century closed and a new century began. By 2005, nesting territories had increased to 125 and nesting pairs of eagles were averaging a 10 percent increase per year. While the stability of bald eagles remained tenuous, the outlook for their regaining a stronghold in the East Texas Pineywoods looked as bright as their shiny white heads.

That white head is indicated in the name bald eagle, in which the word bald derives from an archaic English word, balled, which seems to have meant “shiny and white.” The scientific name, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, roughly translates to “sea eagle with a white head,” and the bald eagle is the only species of sea eagle native to North America.

Eagles nesting in East Texas are members of the southern race of bald eagles that breed in winter rather than in summer. In a migration pattern opposite that of most other migratory raptors that go northward in summer to breed, southern bald eagles head southward in the winter to breed in pine forests from Florida to East Texas. They migrate back northward in summer to the Mississippi River Valley, and some birds travel as far northwest as Montana and as far northeast as New York. Some even continue into Canada. But, they come back south, many to East Texas, to spend the winter laying eggs and raising their young, more properly called eaglets — as befits a name for young regal birds.

Eagles tend to arrive at their East Texas breeding grounds around the first of October. They generally begin nesting in late December or early January in the eastern half of East Texas and about a month later in the western half, but they show considerable variation in the timing of the nesting cycle. Whatever the cycle, successfully hatched eaglets require 12 to 13 weeks to develop sufficient plumage and body size to leave the nest. “Most of the young have started their northward migration by mid-May,” says Gregory, “but I have also seen eaglets hatch as late as April, which means they won’t leave until August.”

I observed a pair of bald eagles on a nest at a lake north of Houston in mid-November 2004. Always keeping a respectful distance from the nest, I observed their progress for several weeks. During the last week of December, I spotted an eaglet poking its head out of the nest. By the last week of March 2005, the youngster was flying on its own. I last saw the parents in mid-May, and I remember whispering in the wind to them, “Y’all come back in the fall, you hear?”

Mating pairs of bald eagles usually do return to the same nesting territory, and the female is capable of reproduction for a dozen or more years. The birds typically nest in tall pine trees adjacent to lakes, streams and marshes, preferring quiet forested areas free from human intrusion. They select nest trees that provide clear visibility to surrounding areas and a clear flight path to the nest. The nest, near the top of a pine tree, may be a huge contraption that Gregory describes as resembling an upside-down Volkswagen beetle. The nest may start out as a basic structure of branches and twigs only 2 feet tall and 5 feet wide; but as nesting eagles add new branches and twigs over the years, the nest may eventually reach a size of more than 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide.

A mating pair may use the same nest year after year or may alternate among nests they’ve built in their territory. During breeding season, the female usually lays one to three large, dull-white oval eggs in the nest over a two- to four-day span. Both parents share duties tending to the eggs to protect them from predators and to incubate them over about a 35-day period; of course, the female actually does most of the incubating. Once the eggs hatch, the parents share duties of feeding and protecting the eaglets until they reach full size and are strong enough to fly, at about three months of age. “We usually see one to two young per nest,” Gregory says, “and occasionally a nest will produce three. Over the last five years, East Texas eagles averaged producing 1.2 young per nest.”

Fortunately, state and federal legislators passed laws to protect the bird from madcap shooters, banned DDT that had been abridging the eagle’s reproductive success and conserved forest-nesting areas where the bird could safely rebound.

Adults and their young disperse after the breeding season, but parents insist that the young make it on their own. Brent Ortego, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says, “Most of the time, the adults leave the young after they get tired of being harassed for feeding. Then, the young are on their own. They lose some weight, but most figure out how to make a living. Some do not.” Ortego further explains that parents show little tolerance for the young accompanying them to the nesting territory in succeeding years, even though first-year eagles show a high fidelity to their natal nesting site. Parents literally chase them away, as if to let the young birds know they have to live on their own. It works because the incidence of young eagles following their parents “home” declines dramatically in the second and third years; by the fourth and fifth years when young eagles reach sexual maturity, they set up nesting territories of their own.

Although southern bald eagles have historically been shy about nesting near human habitations, there is anecdotal and observational data suggesting they are gaining tolerance of human settlements near nesting territories. “We’re seeing an increasing number of eagles nesting in urban areas,” Gregory says. “Other states with larger eagle nesting populations have reported urban nesting eagles for years, but until recently, Texans didn’t have eagles nesting in urban areas.”

A good example of urban-adaptive eagles is a nesting pair at Lake Woodlands on the northern outskirts of Houston. Those eagles have nested along the lake for six straight years, since 2000, and have fledged young in four out of six years. The nesting success of these eagles was in spite of intense residential and commercial development around the lake. Indications are that eagles have also nested in the heavily developed Lake Conroe area, 20 miles north of Lake Woodlands. Other nesting pairs have been observed near places of conspicuous human encroachment such as Lake Palestine, Lake Tyler, Lake Livingston, Lake Houston and Lake Charlotte. However, Edith Erfling, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Houston, cautions that bald eagles show considerable variation in their tolerance for human activity. “Activities that one nesting pair may tolerate may cause another pair to abandon their nest,” she says. “Also, while a pair may tolerate the existing level of activity around their nest, additional or different types of activity or a change in the timing of activity may disturb them.”

Whether or not southern bald eagles will learn to adapt to urban or semiurban environments is still an open question. What is clear is that eagle populations are recovering dramatically in East Texas and in other parts of the state due to conservation efforts like nest-site protection and preservation by TPWD in cooperation with USFWS along with other conservation groups and timber companies as well as with ordinary citizens. The return of the majestic eagles to the majestic pines of Texas is a success story accomplished because people rallied together to save a living symbol of our nation.

History of a Symbol

How the bald eagle became a symbol of our nation is a curious tale. Our nation’s founding fathers had a six-year debate over the design of the American emblem. Those favoring the bald eagle on the emblem were at odds with Benjamin Franklin, who argued that the eagle was of “bad moral character” because of its feeding behavior, including a willingness to eat carrion. Franklin’s choice was the wild turkey, which he thought was more respectable than the eagle. Ultimately, the majority agreed to use the bald eagle as a symbol of America’s strength, courage and freedom. Perhaps,they also saw in the eagle’s soaring majesty the soaring hope of a young nation.

But like our nation, the bald eagle has suffered perilous times. It was threatened with extinction in the lower 48 states during the mid-20th century due to senseless shooting, contamination from DDT and loss of nesting grounds in the southeastern United States. Fortunately, state and federal legislators passed laws to protect the bird from madcap shooters, banned DDT that had been abridging the eagle’s reproductive success and conserved forest-nesting areas where the bird could safely rebound. As a result of the legislative measures along with governmental and private forest conservation work, nesting pairs in the lower 48 states grew from the dismal number of 417 in 1963 to a more encouraging number of 7,066 in 2004. Although its prospects are improving, particularly in East Texas, the bald eagle is not out of peril, and it remains on the threatened species list of the USFWS.

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