Bald Eagle Recovery

This past weekend I traveled to the Conowingo Dam at the Susquehanna River along the PA/MD border to see the Bald Eagles who spend the winter here.

The Conowingo Dam is one of the largest non-federal hydroelectric facilities in the US, and when it is generating electricity fish and water are sucked into the dam through large turbines. The presence of these fish attracts large numbers of Great Blue Heron, Gulls, and Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagles on Rocks at Conowingo Dam

I was afraid I was too late to see the Eagles because they nest very early (Feb 20 – April 30 in PA), and they leave their wintering locations in early February to begin building their nests. But I was thrilled to count 18 Bald Eagle perched on the rocks and in the trees above the river.

I am reminded that there was a time not too long ago when the presence of even one Eagle along this river was a big deal because the Bald Eagle population crashed due to the bioaccumulation of DDT in their systems. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service:

DDT and its residues washed into nearby waterways, where aquatic plants and fish absorbed it. Bald eagles, in turn, were poisoned with DDT when they ate the contaminated fish. The chemical interfered with the ability of the birds to produce strong eggshells. As a result, their eggs had shells so thin that they often broke during incubation or otherwise failed to hatch. DDT also affected other species such as peregrine falcons and brown pelicans.

The Bald Eagle was placed on the Endangered Species list in 1967, and the road back has been very slow.

The presence of the Bald Eagle now is also a sign of river health. If the river was polluted the aquatic vegetation would not thrive, the fish would not have a food source, and therefore the Eagles would have nothing to eat.

I learned this lesson very well while I was in grad school and spent much of my time working with Clay Sutton, a New Jersey biologist who has spent the last 20 years monitoring river and watershed health on several long-term studies.

Several times a week, I would meet with Clay Sutton and his partner James Dowdell and we would travel to dedicated points to count the number of birds on the water at each site, and thus determine the health of these waterways.

In 1983 only 3 Bald Eagle nests remained in Pennsylvania. Last year over 200 nests were located in this state.

In 1973 New Jersey had only one nesting pair of Bald Eagle in the state. Last year NJ recorded over 100 nests in the state.

Bald Eagle on Nest

Bald Eagles mate for life and build large nests at the top of trees which they add to every year. Some of these nests have weighed in at over 1500 pounds!

Although it is unlikely that you would have a Bald Eagle nest in your wildlife garden (unless you lived along a river, lake, or estuary), we can all help to ensure the continued recovery of this magnificent bird by eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides in our gardens.

These toxic chemicals run off our properties every time it rains, and are washed into our streams and rivers, polluting this water and causing algae blooms, eutrification, and a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is larger than the state of New Jersey.

It is quite easy to manage your wildlife garden without the use of any of these chemicals, as Ellen Sousa has done a terrific job of describing. Our responsibility as gardeners extends far beyond our own garden gates!

Please enjoy this lovely poem by my friend David Bourne, The Eagle (dedicated to his father-in-law Bert on the day of his passing)

And this great post about Bald Eagle recovery efforts in Wisconsin by our new frequent commenter Wisconsin Wildman.

Have you seen nesting Bald Eagle near your wildlife garden?

See photos and video of another visit to Conowingo Dam to see the Bald Eagle.

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

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  1. says

    Here along the St. Lawrence River great efforts have been made to bring back Bald Eagles. I believe last year there was a count of six Eagle nest sites and the goal is twelve. We often see Eagles along the river now but people who have lived here for the majority of their lives say that there was a time when it was extremely rare to see an Eagle. Another big comeback is the Common Loon. Yesterday we saw two Swans. I love spending time floating on the river and watching for birds.

  2. says

    I live 2 hours south of the violetfern and my garden is across the road from a lake a rather shallow yet large inland lake…we have had eagles nesting for a few years now and those living on the lake have already spotted them…I also saw them flying…hard to miss…even in the area surrounding what used to be one of the most polluted lakes in the world (Onondaga Lake in Syracuse) they are now nesting there…what a great sign to know that perhaps in our area the water pollution is reversing and I know my not using chemicals has helped for my lake…

  3. says

    My town is located about ten minutes from Jordan Lake, one of the reliable bald eagle nesting spots in North Carolina. They’re unlikely to wind up in my yard, but when I drive across the lake causeway, about once a month I see an eagle.

    I tend to be a little jaded about them, honestly, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest where they are (now) as common as dirt, but having one pacing the car just above the sunroof is an extraordinary experience no matter HOW jaded you are.

    A buddy of mine who works at an Audubon center in Seattle says that the #1 call they get is people going “WOW! I saw a bald eagle!” She says that she always tries to be enthusiastic and tell the callers about all the great environmentalism that made it possible, and leaves out the bit where you can probably spot a bald eagle in Seattle merely by going outside and gazing vague upward, because hey, getting people excited about ANY bird is a win.
    Ursula Vernon recently posted..More mulch!

    • says

      Ursula, some of my birder friends call the common birds that they see “trash birds” because they’re not exciting to them any more. It’s so funny to hear you imply that Eagles in the Pacific NW fall into this category :) Around here, it’s still exciting to see them, especially when we get to observe the whole nesting process. Someday I’ll get to visit the Seattle area and see this wonder for myself!
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Occupy Scotts

  4. David Bourne says

    Very cool, Carole.

    It sounds like a neat spot. Some day I’ll tell you about my passion for osprey, another victim of DDT.

    And Ursula, osprey are so super common in parts of Fl, that it’s crazy. They made a comeback, but thrive like crazy now, in part due to a non-native fish species!

    The DDT recovery is a great story that we all need to repeatedly share. Thanks for this addition.


    Ps I wrote a poem for my father law, a wildlife pioneer. The Eagle
    David Bourne recently posted..Find an Audience with Storytelling – How Storytelling Works

  5. says

    (on a recent GardenRant they said smugly, runoff is not a problem, because most gardeners don’t have ponds. So that’s OK then!)

    Silent Spring was one of the books that set me on a gardening for wildlife path. Delighted to hear the birds are recovering.

    • says

      Diana, I first read Silent Spring as a young child (I think around the 3rd grade), and then I proceeded to nag and pester my parents about the garden chemicals that were stored in our garage and applied freely to our garden. I kept crying “You’re killing the birds!” Maybe to shut me up and get me to stop nagging them, they eventually stopped using those chemicals. Small victory there :)
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Reader Appreciation: Genevieve Schmidt

  6. says

    Osceola Cty FL has the largest concentration of nesting Eagles in the lower 48. I’ve even had an eagle land at my place and my friend who does eagle watch is monitoring her nest which has eggs again this year!
    Loret recently posted..Boys will be boys

  7. Kelyn says

    Hi Carole,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for the past several months, and, since you’ve posted about Bald Eagles, as an employee there I just wanted to send along the link to the Norfolk Botanical Garden Eagle Cam!

    We’ve had a pair of eagles living on the property for several years, who have raised 19 eaglets! Although the female eagle was recently struck and killed by a plane at the neighboring airport, the male has managed to bring TWO other females back to the nest.

    The Eagle Cam is pretty cool, and those in charge of it have saved some neat clips of the eagles in their nest. Definitely worth checking out!


  1. […] 108. Bald Eagle Recovery: This past weekend I traveled to the Conowingo Dam at the Susquehanna River along the PA/MD border to see the Bald Eagles who spend the winter here. I was thrilled to count 18 Bald Eagles perched on the rocks and in the trees above the river.I am reminded that there was a time not too long ago when the presence of even one Eagle along this river was a big deal because the Bald Eagle population crashed due to the bioaccumulation of DDT in their systems… ~Carole Sevilla Brown […]

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