People can explore the great Oregon outdoors with a bit more pride this spring because bald eagles are back from the brink of extinction.
From high overhead Washington County, KGW's Sky 8 shows Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, where there’s a uniquely promising scene this spring: America’s awesome bird, a bald eagle, sits upon a massive nest protecting her new clutch of eggs.
It may be a proof-positive sign that a new generation of our national symbol is on the way, but there’s a sobering truth to her regal presence: we’re lucky she’s even here!
You see, a generation ago many believed that bald eagles would not make it out of the 20th century because, “DDT pesticide pollution was in common use for agricultural applications,” according to Martin Nugent.
Nugent is the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Endangered Species” expert.
He said that the chemical pesticide DDT nearly caused the disappearance of the bird in Oregon and many other western states.
"Bald eagles and other raptor species are top line predators and they regularly ate small fish and mammals that had absorbed the toxic DDT chemicals into their fatty tissues," said Nugent. "That’s how eagles, falcons and osprey picked up the toxins."
He added, “As a result, we had many years when the bald eagles couldn’t breed successfully.”
In fact, Oregon bald eagle numbers dropped to just 65 pairs across the state by the 1960’s.
In 1972, the use of DDT was banned and in 1978 the Endangered Species Act extended protection to eagles and their nests.
It became a crime to injure or kill eagles or harm their nests.
“All of those things taken together allowed the eagle population to stabilize and then take off. Now, the recovery of the bald eagle is spectacular and based upon really excellent science," said Nugent.
Bald eagle numbers have soared the past three decades. Today, there are more than 570 nesting pairs across Oregon.
In fact, the birds have done so well in so many places that the Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife recently announced that the time had come to remove the birds from that state’s Endangered Species List.
Today, you can see bald eagles in every region of the state: from soaring along coastal headlands like Cape Meares State Park or perched in the cottonwoods above industrial Portland’s Smith and Bybee Wetlands or across the open fields of the greater Willamette Valley and eagles are frequently seen throughout the entire Columbia River basin.
Bald eagles are kings of the sky once more!
Back at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, a pair of eagles has built a massive nest that’s proven productive over the past three years: they’ve raised eaglets in the nest each season.
In fact, the nest is the third in the past 14 years, (the others blew down in severe storms.) Sarah Pinnock, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve Education Specialist, said that biologists estimate the pair has raised a dozen youngsters.
Inside the nearby Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve Education Center, you get a close up look to amazing eagle architecture in an actual nest.
The nest was rescued from a giant cottonwood that had been damaged in a windstorm and was falling over. The nest was cut, removed and transported intact to the center so to teach us more about eagles.
“The first thing people remark on is the size of the nest; it’s huge,” said Pinnock. “From a distance, an eagle nest appears like a dark spot in a tree but here you get up close to this one. It seems about the size of a mini cooper or a beetle car. It’s really impressive!”
Pinnock added that each year, the eagle parents will add up to two feet of new material to the nest. The birds work together and they weave sticks and branches into the existing nest with their beaks and talons.
“They line the top of the nest with soft material like grasses or small debris,” added Pinnock. “They create a comfortable, cup-shaped depression in the nest and that’s where the female will lay her eggs.”
The female eagle will lay up to three eggs in March and the eggs usually hatch within a month. The chicks will fledge from the nest in about 8 weeks.
Young eagles stay with their parents through July and then the entire family disappears. The parents return to the nest site again in November.
Pinncok said the “de-listing” of bald eagles in Oregon is a remarkable event: “Twenty years ago, I remember rarely seeing a bald eagle - except perhaps the coast – and now we have several pair nesting in the Tualatin River basin alone. The eagles are back in big numbers and I think that’s just fabulous news.”