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Young: Symbolic bird’s numbers on the rise­

July 3, 2011
The Altoona Mirror
As we celebrate another anniversary of American independence over this Fourth of July weekend, we will be immersed in the symbolism that defines our nation — from the flag to fireworks to the majestic bald eagle. When I was growing up, I often yearned for the chance to see an eagle in the wild. Now almost every fishing trip I make to the Juniata River produces at least one eagle sighting. And I never tire of seeing one of these great birds. Having bald eagles become so commonplace adds much gratification to the outdoor experience and is a testament to one of the greatest success stories in wildlife restoration. Ironically, the need for such a restoration also embodies a shameful disregard for yet another natural resource. When the bald eagle was adopted as our national symbol in the 1780s, there may have been as many as 100,000 mating pairs of eagles in what is now the lower 48 states; by the 1960s, there were less than 500. Many factors contributed to that regrettable decline. Bald eagles feed mainly on fish and tend to live on or near large rivers and lakes. Increasing amounts of water pollution harmed the birds and killed off their food supplies. Increased development along our waterways deprived eagles of nesting and hunting sites. Improper use of certain pesticides such as DDT adversely affected many species of birds, including bald eagles. Most disgraceful is the fact that eagles were often shot indiscriminately until well into the 1940s. When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, the bald eagle became a charter member of the endangered species list, with its last strongholds being Alaska and parts of Canada. Pennsylvania began a bald eagle restoration program in 1983 when just three eagle nests remained in the state, all of them in Crawford County. Over the next seven years, 88 young eagles were caught in the wild in Saskatchewan and released at sites on the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County and the Delaware River in Pike County. Those restoration efforts produced 8 active eagle nests in Pennsylvania by 1990, and by 2000, there were 48. Just six years later, more than 100 eagle nests were known throughout the state. Current estimates indicate we have about 200 bald eagle nests in at least 50 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Crawford County tops the list with 22 eagle nests, and bald eagles now nest in the shadows of our two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Many other states in the Northeast have experienced similar success with their own eagle restoration programs. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the federal endangered species list in 2007. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, however, still classifies the bald eagle as a threatened species in Pennsylvania. Bald eagles reach adulthood at four to five years, which is when they acquire their distinctive white head and tail. Younger birds are dark with patches of white on the body and the underside of the wings. Weighing 8 to 14 pounds and having a wingspan of seven feet or more, a bald eagle in flight is an impressive creature, even at a distance. Bald eagles are believed to live as long as 30 years in the wild, and a nesting pair of eagles in Pennsylvania was known to be 25 years old. Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County has been the most prolific incubator of bald eagles in south-central Pennsylvania. Since 1999, about 50 young eagles have been fledged there. Many of the eagles produced at Raystown take up residence along the Juniata River, making it one of the best places to see a bald eagle in our region on any given day. Bald eagles also are regularly seen along many other waterways in our region, such as the Raystown Branch, Frankstown Branch, Little Juniata River, Canoe Lake and Glendale Lake. So if your holiday plans include being around any of those locations, keep your eyes open for a look at an eagle. If you are fortunate enough to see one of these magnificent birds, remember that you are not only witnessing a national symbol but also a living symbol of wildlife conservation.

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