Return of the Eagle

The national bird returns to Vermont

We were driving along a nondescript and badly blacktopped road, on our way to the airport in Albany, with the Vermont line about five miles behind us. It was late fall or early winter, depending on your mood. Today, the sky was low and the stream that ran next to the highway was roaring with dirty runoff. Nothing about the day suggested anything majestic.

Then, my daughter, who has the keenest eyes of anyone I’ve ever known, said, “Look at the eagle.”

I thought, for a moment, that I had misunderstood her. “Where?” my wife said.

“In that big, leaning tree. On the branch that hangs out over the water.”

I looked, recognized the tree from her description and saw, right away, the bird. It would have been hard to miss, with that startlingly white head. It was the whitest thing anywhere on that
gray day.

Eagle on branchMajestic Bird
We slowed down and all of us looked at that big, majestic, implacable bird whose simple presence changed the mood of the day. This was no longer a dreary little highway, next to an insignificant little stream in a random rural valley. Now that the eagle was here, it was wild country. Wilderness, even.

If that brief sighting of a bald eagle didn’t take my breath away it came close enough that I described it that way from then on, whenever I told the story. Which was often.

It was worth telling since, back then, there were no resident eagles in Vermont. Not one. In fact, Vermont was the last state in the union where a breeding pair established residence. That happened
in 2008.

Before then, there were occasional sightings of the great bird in the sky over Vermont. But these were always solitary visitors. From the New York side, around Lake George and from the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River. Eagles, it seems, like to be around water.

Not that Vermont doesn’t have any. There is Lake Champlain, of course, and other, smaller lakes that are, nevertheless, large enough to be attractive to eagles. And, then, there are many rivers that are large enough.

But there was just something about the Vermont neighborhood …

When I first moved to Vermont and learned of the absence of eagles in some random conversation, it registered as a flaw. There ought to be eagles here, I thought. After all, Vermont was going through a time when many species that were thought to have either disappeared, or been reduced in numbers to near insignificance, were returning and, even, thriving.

The first thing that any wildlife species needs is, of course, habitat. Vermont, as most of us know, had been largely cleared by the turn of the 20th century. Farming and logging had stripped both hills and valleys, leaving mostly open and inhospitable ground where there had once been forested land. The statistic you hear often is that the state was 10 percent forested and 90 percent cleared. Which accounts, in large part, for why there were no mountain lions (catamounts) in Vermont any longer. Nor any turkeys. Very few deer and bear.

But the land gradually came back in second growth timber—both hardwood and softwood—large tracts of which were protected as National Forest and in many cases not economically tempting to loggers. Increasingly hospitable, though, to wildlife.

Farming also declined in Vermont and this resulted in expansion of what is called “edge effect,” as the borders of old pasture land grew up in aspen and other quick growing species that provide excellent cover. Eventually, the old percentages were reversed and Vermont was 10 percent cleared and ninety percent forested.

With the dramatic increase in habitat came a return of the creatures that depend on it. There may well be more bears in Vermont now than at any time since the first European settlers arrived. Nobody has to be told that there are a lot of deer in Vermont. Not when anyone who has driven the state’s roads has a story about a close call or actual collision with a deer. Everyone, it seems, has a bear story to tell. And we all know about the coyotes. My own favorite “return of the wild” story is that of the turkey. They were gone, entirely, from Vermont by the 20th century. Then, in 1969, 31 birds were live trapped in New York state and released in Vermont.

These birds found the regenerated Vermont habitat entirely satisfactory and they increased their number and range until, today, there are an estimated 50,000 wild turkeys in Vermont and their range extends across the entire state.

The bald eagle, however, has had a much tougher time of it.

eagel in flightTurkey vs. Eagle
The two birds are exceedingly dissimilar but, nevertheless, often linked by Benjamin Franklin’s supposed preference for the turkey as the symbol of the new nation he had helped bring into existence. The story is that, when it came time to design an official seal for the country, there was a problem. The first design, approved by Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, depicted a woman with a shield. No birds of any kind. But it was rejected by Congress, after which a Philadelphia artist named William Barton produced something around the image of a golden eagle. This was thought insufficiently chauvinistic since there were golden eagles in Europe, and the colonies were still at war with a European power. So there was another redesign. The seal on the bird was now a bald eagle, a bird found only in North America. Though this design was approved by Congress, Franklin objected. “I wish,” he wrote, “the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched in some dead tree where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing hawk and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for his young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes the fish. With all this injustice, he is never in good case.”

“I wish,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly.”

This may come across as a little harsh, but it is true. I once saw a bald eagle ambush an osprey (what Franklin called a “fishing hawk”) that was taking a fish to its nest. It came diving down, almost too fast to be believed, on the smaller, but similarly colored, bird and forced it to drop the fish in order to take evasive action. A collision would have been fatal or at least very painful. The eagle continued its dive and caught up with the fish, nailing it in the air and flying off to its nest, no doubt feeling like it had done a good day’s work.

But that is the way of the wild and perhaps Franklin was too civilized to recognize it. At any rate, on a later occasion he anthropomorphized the turkey, as, ”A much more respectable bird and a true native of America [though] a little vain and silly, a bird of courage …” It is not, however, documented that he ever advocated for the turkey as our national symbol.

Neither bird did particularly well in the 20th century, especially not in Vermont. Eagles, however, took much longer to re-establish themselves, and not just in Vermont. The species was in desperate shape in the lower 48 when turkeys were getting a solid foothold. It is estimated that there were only some 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 in the 1970s. There had been between 300,000 and 500,000 back in the 1700s, when the entire continent was good habitat with good hunting.

That eagle projected something that you don’t ordinary associate with avian life. Namely, physical strength. It had size and power and the moment has stayed with me, vividly, ever since.

The great bird had suffered not just from loss of habitat but from chemicals—especially DDT—used to control insect pests. Insect-eating fish would concentrate high amounts of DDT in their flesh and when eagles ate contaminated fish, they consumed the DDT which had the effect of making their egg shells very thin and fragile. So paired birds—they mate for life—might go years without a successful breeding.

Also, eagles were, themselves, considered pests. Or, more appropriately, predators. While it wasn’t an everyday occurrence, they would take a young lamb or other vulnerable animals, livestock and pets. And, of course, chickens. So some eagles were shot. And while eagles are hunters and can take fish or small animals, they are above all … scavengers. They will eat road kill which means that they get hit by cars and trucks.

So they became an endangered species over much of their former range, though there were healthy populations in Alaska and British Columbia where they congregate on the banks of the big rivers when the salmon were return-
ing to spawn and with their white head feathers, make the otherwise austere trees along the rivers banks look rather festive.

Bald Eagle’s Recovery
The bald eagle’s recovery was made possible in the lower forty-eight by the banning of DDT. And by serious conservation efforts that included strict prohibition against killing them and keeping their nesting areas free of pressure.

It is hard to miss an eagle’s nest. Once two birds have paired up, they work together to build their home in the top of a tall tree with a good line of sight on the surrounding country and, generally, big water. The nest is built of thick sticks and strongly constructed. When finished it may weigh as much as a ton and be ten feet or more in diameter. Once the nest has been built, the female lays one to three eggs and incubates them for about 35 days. The juveniles do not show the dramatically white feathers on head and tail. They are more mottled brown until the age of five. The birds live for twenty to thirty years.

Successful nesting and breeding requires that the eagles be unmolested. Eagles that feel pressured or threatened may abandon a nest, leaving their eggs or, possibly, the newly hatched chicks that would still be too young to survive on their own. This means that while the nests are big and conspicuous, there needs to be a perimeter of protection around them.

“We like to ask people who want to view eagles to stay at least 300 feet from a nest,” John Buck of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department told me when I spoke with him. He was eager to talk, since he had a success to talk about. Since that first breeding pair established itself in the 2008, more have appeared and built nests. There are now 20 breeding pairs in Vermont and the birds have become so well established, Buck says, that the state may be close to changing its status from “endangered” to merely “threatened.”

Still, he cautions, people should remember to give eagles their space. And that harassment of the birds can result in criminal charges.

Since that day when we saw that eagle perched formidably in a tree overlooking that swollen river, I have seen others much closer to home. Not flying so much as soaring. Very high and with very little wing action or, even, effort. Riding unseen thermals and looking over the ground below. Or maybe just flying for the sake of it. If you could fly like that, wouldn’t you want to?

But these would not, John Buck told me, have been resident birds. There are no nesting pairs in our corner of the state, even though the birds I saw, over the Pawlet valley were unquestionably eagles.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” Buck said. “But those birds have tremendous range. They could have come from a long way off.”

From the Adirondacks, perhaps. One day my wife and I were sitting on a rock ledge on top of a small hill overlooking one of the multitude of Adirondack lakes, when an eagle flew by, virtually at eye level, no more than one hundred feet from us. That eagle projected something that you don’t ordinary associate with avian life. Namely, physical strength. It had size and power and the moment has stayed with me, vividly, ever since.

On the other hand, Buck said, the birds I saw could have come down from the Lake Champlain area where there are breeding pairs. It would be nothing for one of those birds to make it to our part of the state.

Immature birds who have not yet found a mate have ranged hundreds of miles from the area where they were born. In this, anyway, they are very American, always striking out for new territory.

So, viewing an eagle in Vermont is still an event. Not so rare as it once was but still something that you pause over and remember. And that, thankfully, is no longer something that makes you wonder if it might never happen again.

The eagle is making a comeback. Here and everywhere.

And that’s a good thing.

No matter what Benjamin Franklin thinks. ◊

Geoffrey Norman is a novelist and essayist who lives in Dorset.