By Stan Schwartz
CLARKSVILLE—When Europeans first set foot on this continent, there were at least 500,000 mating pairs of eagles. By the late 1700s, that number was cut in half by man’s encroachment into the new world, said Ann Lyles with the Dickerson Park Zoo out of Springfield, Mo.
She said Eagle Days is a wonderful conservation success story. Back in the early 1970s there was a concerted effort to bring nesting eagles back to Missouri.
They ran the eagle program both days about every hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We lost our last nesting pair in 1964,” she added. “Until the late ’80s, we didn’t have any nesting eagles in the state of Missouri.”
Better than half the audience comes back each year for the program, she said. She told of time when the Founding Fathers were picking the national bird. A three-man committee comprised of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. Two of them wanted the bald eagle because it was native to North America. Franklin wanted the turkey.
“I’d hate to sit down at Thanksgiving and stick and knife and fork into my national bird,” Lyles said.
In 1974, U.S. Fish and Wildlife invited four zoos to come to a workshop to find a partner for captive breeding of eagles to bring nesting pairs back to several states, in particular Missouri.
At the time, Dickerson Park Zoo was one of the largest eagle rehabbers in the country, so when the other zoos opted not to participate, the captive breeding program was started in Springfield.
After World War II, the eagle population in the U.S. had dropped to fewer than 500 pairs. She said it was the introduction of the pesticide DDT that really did the damage to the eagle population.
The petrochemical industry was new then, and people didn’t know the long term effect of such pesticides on other species.
DDT was banned in 1972, but after such devastation, it would take more than just nature to help bring back the eagles, Lyles said.
“Up to that point there weren’t a lot of studies about bald eagles,” she said. “The population was so critically low,” she added, “that they needed to know what to do to help them.”
She noted that it takes five years for an eagle to mature, and when it is mature, it stays within 50 miles of the nest where it was hatched. With the only nesting pairs up around the Great Lakes and in Canada, the possibility of nesting pairs in Missouri happening naturally, was far off.
Lyles also explained that eagles lay their eggs over several days; usually two to three of them. They grow to full size in just 12 weeks. Competition for food among the siblings is fierce, and the last to hatch had little chance of survival.
The one eagle that comes out on top to fly from the next only has a 30 percent chance of survival in its first year of life. Once past that first year the percentage of survival goes way up, and eagles can live 25-30 years in the wild.
“And if there is a third egg laid, and it’s probably not going to make, what they thought they’d do is go to where those healthy eagle populations are and snatch those number eagle after it hatches and bring it back to Missouri to fly from a nest here,” she said.
During the 1980s 74 birds were released through artificial nests in various places across the state so they would stay in Missouri. Of those 74 birds, 70 of them survived.
About then Todd Robitsch the handler brought out Phoenix a 31-year-old female bald eagle. Injured as a young eagle and nursed back to health, she could not be released back into the wild because she had imprinted on humans and knew they would provide her food. Lyles said, instead she was drafted into the program they produce to help educate the public on the conservation efforts being made to keep her species alive.
“She has been doing Eagle Day program since she was about six months old,” Lyles said.
The program was a success, she noted. At last count in 2019, there were about 470 active nests in Missouri.
“And now the focus on Eagle Days has changed a little. We have to talk about continuing to keep them safe.”
Too close contact with an eagle nest by humans could cause the pair to abandon it, even if there are hatchlings in it. Nest should be given a wide birth, so as not to upset the birds. An eagle’s vision is so acute it can hunt from a mile high, she said.
A bald eagle can drop out of the sky at 100 mph to catch a fish, with the grip strength of 400 to 1,000 pounds of pressure.
“They are well adapted to their food and survival,” she added.