Bald eagle population perseveres despite human threats

Updated: May. 8, 2019 at 5:16 PM EDT
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ROCKY POINT, NC (WECT) - When an adult bald eagle dies of unnatural causes, it creates a ripple effect that takes a massive toll on the eagle’s family.

In April, two adult male eagles were killed in southeastern NC, and according to the Cape Fear Raptor Center in Rocky Point, X-rays revealed that one of the birds had been shot. The other had been hit by a car.

Even though bald eagles were taken off the endangered species list in 2007, they’re still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

The bald eagle population in our area is in good shape but considering that eagles mate in certain territories for life, and lay only one to three eggs per year, losing a parent eagle is a devastating blow.

Most of the injured eagles brought to the Cape Fear center are there for one reason.

"Seventy-five percent of the eagles presented into the hospital, according to our most recent data, have tested positive for lead in their system," said Scott Shimp, director of rehabilitation at the raptor center.

Most of the time an eagle is brought to the raptor center for a gunshot wound, it has been hit with pellets or bbs. A bb led to the death of the eagle that was shot in April.

Shimp said gunshots are "maybe in our top five" causes of death or injury for the bald eagles he sees at the center. Electrocution and being hit by cars injure or kill more of the birds than gunshots but the preventability of the latter can be more infuriating.

“Most of the time, honestly, it’s youths, kids,” Shimp said. “They’re out playing. They see a bird [and they would say], ‘It would be cool to see if we can hit it.’

“After the fact, we have had those opportunities where we get to show the bird to the kid or the teenager. Occasionally it’ll be an adult, but very rarely. They realize, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I did that.’ It was a bad mistake.”

Any eagle’s death caused directly or indirectly by humans is tragic but the timing of these two deaths couldn’t have been much worse. Baby eagles usually hatch in the spring, and losing a parent usually results in the chicks also dying, mainly because it’s next to impossible for the remaining adult eagle to keep itself and the chicks alive.

“Think about the workload that one eagle is gonna have to provide,” Shimp said. “They have two or possibly even three chicks. That one parent would be responsible for feeding all three of them as well as itself. That’s a lot of hunting and fishing to do.”

Fortunately, Shimp said, the adult eagle left behind often finds a new mate and tries to start a new family within a relatively short period of time.

It is against the law to kill bald eagles, and even though the raptor center does not take in many eagles that have been shot, protecting the animal first chosen as the symbol of the United States in 1782 remains important work.

“We have a robust population of eagles here in North Carolina, and they continue to grow,” Shimp said. “That’s encouraging, despite the number of birds we see coming in for electrocution, lead poisoning and (being) hit by cars. The last approximation I heard was 200 nesting pairs (in NC)."

To learn more about the Cape Fear Raptor Center and the work done there to help birds of prey, click here.

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