January 12, 2022

I came across a story in our local paper about an injured Bald Eagle that had been rescued and then ultimately released back into the wild in Louisiana.  The bird had been brought to the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine’s Wildlife Hospital by Wildlife and Fisheries after it had been hit by tractor-trailer truck.  A spokesperson for the hospital said they treat around 15 eagles each year, along with 1200 other mammals, birds, and reptiles.  After preforming bloodwork and radiographs on the eagle, the hospital surprisingly found there were no musculoskeletal injuries.  There was evidence the bird had been previously shot, as she had non-life-threatening pellets in her body.  These did not appear to affect her mobility. 

While it is illegal to shoot these birds under the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, they are still targets of illicit hunting.  The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a bird of prey found in North America.  It is a sea eagle which has two known subspecies and forms a species pair along with the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).  Its range includes most of Canada and Alaska, all the contiguous US, and northern Mexico.  It is found near large bodies of open water with an abundant food supply and old-growth trees for nesting.  The bald eagle is an opportunistic feeder that subsists mainly on fish which it snatches from the water with its talons.  Bald eagles are not bald, and the name derives from an older meaning of the word, “white headed”.  Adult birds are mainly brown with a white head and tail.  The sexes are identical in plumage, but females are about 25 percent larger than males. The yellow beak is large and hooked.  The plumage of the immature eagle is brown.  The bald eagle is the national bird of the US and appears on the country’s official seal.

In 2020 there were approximately 2,900 bald eagle nesting sites in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley of Louisiana.  The birds build the largest nest of any North American bird and the largest tree nests ever recorded for any animal species, up to 13 feet (4 m) deep, 8.2 feet (2.5 m) wide, and 1.1 short tons (1 metric ton) in weight.  Sexual maturity is attained at the age of four to five years and longevity in the wild is around 20 years.  The eagles will mate for life and the radiographs showed the injured bird was carrying an egg that her injuries made her unable to lay.  When released the eagle took a few hops and then flew away toward home.  Aspen Settle, a hospital veterinary student said, “She was attacked and then hit by a car . . . Hopefully she gets a new start.”      

Thoughts:  Like all carnivorous birds of prey (raptors), the bald eagles nesting was hard hit by use of DDT following World War II.  Despite DDT being banned in 1972, the eagles struggled to recover and by the late 20th century was on the brink of being lost to the contiguous US.  Populations have since recovered, and the species was removed from the US government’s list of endangered species on 12 July 1995 and transferred to the list of threatened species.  It was removed from the Endangered and Threatened Wildlife list in the contiguous states on 28 June 2007.  As large apex predators, myths still exist about eagles killing sheep and carrying off baby calves.  Even if you ignore the Protection Act, eagles are apt scavengers who will eat whatever they find on the ground and will clean up the waste left by humans and our own food sources.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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