The Bald Eagle is the national symbol of the United States of America. It seems appropriate for a country to have such a majestic bird as a symbol. Long-lived, monogamous, good parent, characteristic of wild places, Bald Eagles excite awe and admiration wherever they fly.
There have been notable dissenters from this view, including Ben Franklin, in a letter to his daughter 20 June 1782: "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him."
Yes, Bald Eagles are inveterate kleptoparasites, robbing Ospreys and other raptors of their prey. Like all birds, they have terrific vision and are aware of what goes on all around them, even at some distance. Not even a swift and strong Peregrine Falcon can withstand the attack of an eagle determined to wrest a recently captured bird from it.
In the middle of the 20th Century, Bald Eagle populations were decimated by ingesting DDT along with the fish and fish-eating birds that they preyed on. DDT compromises calcium transport, and the eggs laid by the eagles, with inadequate calcium, were thin-shelled enough to crack under the weight of an incubating female. Reproductive success fell and populations declined along with it.
DDT was banned in the US in 1972, and eagle populations have been rebounding ever since, to levels greater than any previously documented. Their numbers have skyrocketed in particular in the Pacific Northwest, which must be optimal eagle country.
Unfortunately, the consequences of this are dire for some other bird species. Eagles are opportunists above all, and they have learned to make a living, at least in spring and summer, by hanging around bird colonies. With present eagle numbers, colonies of Great Blue Herons, Caspian Terns, and Common Murres on and near the coasts have been hit hard by these predators, sometimes just single birds taking advantage of the prey concentration.
The nesting birds have no way to withstand eagle predation, losing eggs, young and even adults to the predators. Even though eagles may eat a small percentage of the birds in a colony, their presence causes nesting to be disrupted to the point of complete colony abandonment. Because of this, numerous Great Blue Heron colonies have failed, and even huge colonies of thousands of murres and terns have been abandoned.
In the coming years, wildlife managers will have to figure out how to deal with this dilemma. Bald Eagles are not on the endangered species list any more, but they are still protected. The birds whose colonies they are destroying are also protected and of concern, and what should we do when one valued species affects another one so severely?