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June 2012
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Kentucky's nesting eagle count keeps rising

By Steve Vantreese

Bald eagle numbers are growing with such vigor that we'll have to be careful they don't peck our eyes out.

Well, perhaps they haven't expanded to that extent. But eagles clearly are making gains. For a species that was on the ropes in the Lower 48 states, they've come back like gangbusters over four decades.

Kentucky's nesting eagle population â “ our birds that nested and reared young in this state â “ went belly up in 1950. That was the first year that, as far as wildlife scientists know, we ceased having any nesting eagles. Indeed, the last nesting pair of eagles in Kentucky during those dark days was seen in 1949.

It took a dangerous slide of the national symbol toward extirpation before America got serious about bald eagle conservation and re-establishment.

One of the earliest and most significant steps was the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972. It is believed that DDT in the food chain weakened the shells of bald eagle eggs and ultimately derailed reproduction. It took years for DDT residue in the food chain to decline, but since then nesting success of eagles (and other bird species, too) increased.

The Endangered Species Act with considerable teeth in its eagle-protective provisions was passed in 1973.

In years that followed, eagle "hacking," a method of reintroducing and orienting young eagles to vacant nesting territories, was carried out by wildlife biologists in several areas, including our own nearby Land Between the Lakes.

Young eagles were brought in to fledge (grow to the age of taking flight) on nest-simulating platforms. Those eaglets grew, flew and split â “ then were prone to return to the area where they fledged to nest themselves about five years later when they became sexually mature.

Eagles hacked in the LBL led the species to adopt the area as the first re-established eagle nesting neighborhood in the region in years that followed.

It may or may not have been a major factor, but lead shot was prohibited for waterfowl hunting in 1991. Eagles, it seems, fed on waterfowl that had inadvertently nibbled and ingested expended lead shotgun pellets â “ or carried pellets in them from having been shot. Either way, some eagles were consuming the stray pellets and were sickened or killed by lead poisoning.

All those factors combined started to pay off in more eagles surviving, growing to maturity and nesting, more new eaglets being hatched and sent out into the world to repeat the cycle.

Kentucky saw its first new eagle nest in 1986. That grew to a half dozen nesting pairs by 1990. Over the next decade that almost quadrupled â “ 23 active Kentucky nests were identified in 2000.

The exponential growth continued in the following decade. By 2010, known active nest sites were up to 84.

Two years ago, Kentucky had an even 100 active eagle nests. Last year, when all the reports were checked and the nesting pairs monitored, the number of active nests had grown to 123 â “ an increase of 23 in a single year.

Last year's new high in eagle nesting included a pair of eagles that set up housekeeping with a nest within the city limits on Paducah's Southside. This year, those same birds, in all probability, seem to have abandoned their starter home, having built and occupied a new nest in another tree nearby.

An in-town adult eagle could be seen on the new nest, its white head poking above the construction of sticks, earlier this week.

During the winter across the state, migrating eagles from northern territories probably add in with a few residents (that nest here but haven't migrated away) to produce counts that commonly range from around 250 to as much as 400 birds.

Increasingly common winter migrant eagles reflect an overall expanded population in states along the Mississippi Flyway, in the upper Midwest and maybe even southern Canada. However, the rising number of active eagle nests gives us a clear picture of how our segment of the bald eagle population is rerooted and billowing.

A few late migrants might be seen nowadays, but eagles spied here in mid-March likely will be Kentucky eagles, probably birds that were hatched and fledged here, and birds probably engaged in reproducing the next generation of eagles here.

Mere eagle sightings strangely are routine now, but wildlife managers still need to know about new nests. An eagle's nest is a structure of sizeable sticks, most nests measuring three to five feet or more wide and about that tall as well. They usually build pretty high in maturing trees. The only sure way to know it's an eagle's nest is if you see an eagle at it.

The eagle itself, of course, is a large brown bird with a wingspan of six feet or more. A mature eagle, one old enough to be nesting, will sport an unmistakable white-feathered head. (Later in spring, juvenile mottled brown eagles might be seen at a nest.)

If you can determine a nest to be that of mated eagles, back off. Eagles are no longer officially endangered, but federal guidelines firmly suggest staying at least 330 feet from an eagle's nest not obscured from view.

To report an eagle's nest, phone the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources at 1-800-858-1549. And know you've seen something that simply didn't exist in this state just a few years ago.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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