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The bald truth: The number of bald eagles is increasing

The bald truth: The number of bald eagles is increasing


A bald eagle watches from above Monday afternoon in a tree on Worms Road just north of Chapman Road. (Independent/Josh Salmon)

You don’t have to be as much of an eagle eye anymore to spot bald eagles.

The national symbol has seen its population quadruple since 2009, according to a recent report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners.

In 1963, there were 417 known nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. That number has grown to more than 71,400, and individual bald eagles are estimated to total 317,700, according to scientists from the service’s Migratory Bird Program.

The numbers also have increased in Nebraska.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission stopped monitoring nesting bald eagles in 2017.

“It was becoming increasingly challenging to keep up with them because they were increasing so much,” said Joel Jorgensen, the nongame bird program manager for Game and Parks.

But Nebraska follows the trend reported by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

In 1990, Nebraska Game and Parks didn’t detect any nesting eagles. One successful active nest was spotted the following year. In 2017, Game and Parks estimated there were 200 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the state.

For a bird that has a slow rate of reproduction, going from zero to more than 200 breeding pairs in slightly less than 30 years is “pretty remarkable,” Jorgensen said. Bald eagles require four or five years to reach maturity.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife notes that bald eagles “once teetered on the brink of extinction.” The 1963 total was “an all-time low,” according to a news release.

“However, after decades of protection, the banning of the pesticide DDT and conservation efforts with numerous partners, the bald eagle population has flourished,” based on Fish and Wildlife information.

Jorgensen also cited illegal hunting as a cause of the lower numbers years ago.

“Once you remove those impediments, the bald eagles could just recover on their own, and they have, in a remarkable way,” he said.

“The recovery of the bald eagle is one of the most well-known conservation success stories of all time,” Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams said in the news release. “The service continues to work with our partners in state and federal agencies, tribes, non-government organizations and with private landowners to ensure that our nation’s symbol continues to flourish.”

In addition to migratory bald eagles that visit in the spring, some breeding pairs spend a good portion of the year in Nebraska, Jorgensen said.

Bald eagles are most abundant in the eastern and central portions of the state, along major rivers and reservoirs, he said. Nesting bald eagles are common along the Platte and Loup river systems. Bodies of water supply the birds with fish. Fewer eagles are found in the western part of the state.

Bald eagles don’t necessarily follow along the migration of the sandhill cranes. But as with any concentration of birds, such as ducks, geese and cranes, they’re going to somewhat follow “those migration patterns. Because again, there’s always going to be injured and sick birds when you have a lot of birds like that,” which are “opportunities for food,” Jorgensen said.

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