Photo by Frank Leung/IstockPhoto.com

With a pure white head against a striking dark body with an equally impressive seven-foot wingspan, the bald eagle is a sight to behold. To view a bald eagle – spanned against the horizon, perched proudly in its lofty nest, or with its sharp talons cresting the river for trout – often evokes emotions of pride, freedom and enlightenment.

Now that winter is upon us, chances are you may sight a bald eagle as the species, along with many other migratory birds like ducks and geese, make southern Idaho its temporary home.

“The bald eagle is wonderful to sight because not only is it easily recognizable, the bald eagle is also a symbol of hope,” says Twin Falls’ Sarah Harris, president of the National Audubon Society’s local chapter. “With it almost becoming extinct and having made such a rebound, people are encouraged with its story. It is a hopeful thing.”

Photo © Jason Lugo

A large female Bald Eagle rests high on the rocky edge of the Snake River Canyon.

Idaho Fish and Game biologist Justin Barrett says the birds are often feeding or perching and can be found in many places throughout southern Idaho in the winter. They are drawn here by the favorable climate, adequate habitat and water availability.

“Bald eagles are opportunistic animals, so this time of year they are scavenging on winter kill,” Barrett says. “Not only are they fishing, but looking for waterfowl to eat on as well.”

Naturally, the eagles are found where their food source is, and often congregate together.

“Eagles will cluster around places like wetlands, lakes and rivers,” says Barrett. “They usually roost high in trees, power poles and fences. Although, they can also be found with nests on the ground.”

Such big birds need large accommodations and their nests often weigh several hundred pounds.

Barrett explains that eagle counts are coordinated through the agency on an annual basis. The count is conducted on six-survey routes in south central Idaho each winter by the Department of Fish and Game, United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

The results for 2007 are not yet available, but in 2006, 25 bald eagles were counted. In 2005 that number was 33, down from 1999 when 43 eagles were counted.

Photo © Calman LugoJust because the count numbers are down, the results don’t necessarily indicate eagle numbers on a whole have declined.

“No one out there is taking this data to see what the real numbers are,” Barrett says. “Because the count is only done one time a year and there are so many factors involved, like the weather, we may not catch all the eagles every time.”

Not all the bald eagles are here just during the winter, according to Barrett.

“Some of the eagles in our area are here year round. Others travel from Canada or Alaska for the winter,” he says.

Come spring, the bald eagles will either head back home or prepare their nests for the new year. Breeding pairs, often for life, will share the duties of the nest when the eggs, each laid a day apart, arrive.

At six weeks, a healthy eaglet will weigh about eight pounds. Only 50 percent of chicks survive the first year. An adult weighs 10-14 pounds. Although bald eagles can live past 30 years, it takes 4-5 years for an eagle to mature into it’s white-headed splendor.

Reverenced Past

When Americans first landed on the moon in 1969, millions watching the momentous occasion on TV heard Neil Armstrong’s voice crackle over the airwaves, “The eagle has landed.”

A symbol of courage, strength and bravery, eagles were carried into battle by the Persians and Romans.

Photo © Jason LugoMany Native American tribes have identified the eagle as the one closest to the Creator. When Native Americans went into battle, tribes would adorn themselves with eagle feathers in hopes of receiving courage and bravery.

Although some early Americans, including Benjamin Franklin, thought choosing the bald eagle as the American national bird was a bad choice, it was adopted as such in 1782 (Franklin advocated the wild turkey). To the young nation, the bald eagle was a symbol of freedom and proud independence.

The bald eagle appears in the seal of the United States, facing forward, wings spread. In its beak it holds a flowing ribbon that reads: E Plurbis Unum, meaning “Out of many, One.”

The eagle has also served as the emblem to 12 states and it is the symbol of countless companies and organizations from coast to coast.

However, our national bird almost became extinct. After first gaining federal protection in 1940, under what would later be known as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, bald eagle numbers slowly climbed from an all-time low of just 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to over 10,000 pairs today. While the law protected the birds from illegal hunting and shooting for their feathers, eagles fell victim to the widespread use of the pesticide DDT.

As DDT washed into waterways it absorbed into aquatic plant and animal life. When the eagles ate contaminated fish, they became poisoned. The pesticide caused the eagles’ eggs to become so thin and fragile they easily cracked during incubation.

Although the bald eagle was protected in 1967 under the precursor to the Endangered Species Act (enacted in 1973) it wouldn’t be until after the 1972 decision made by the Environmental Protection Agency to ban general use of DDT that bald eagle numbers would see an increase.

On June 28, 2007, the bald eagle was taken off the Endangered Species List; however, it will still be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The acts prohibit the take, transport, sale, barter, trade, import, export or possession of eagles. The act also makes it unlawful for anyone to collect eagles, eagle parts, nests or eggs without permit.

On the Horizon

The bald eagle is likely to be honored by many cultures for years to come. It is up to all of us, Harris believes, to make sure a vital habitat is conserved for not just the eagles, but for all wildlife.

“Although our primary function as a (Audubon) society is to promote bird watching, we also have areas of concentration in preserving habitat, doing feeder watches and having programs to educate people in the importance of environment,” Harris says. “It seems that over the past few years the numbers of bald eagles in the area are growing… we want that to continue.”

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“Over the past few years the numbers of bald eagles in the area are growing… we want that to continue.”

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He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

–  “The Eagle” by Alfred Tennyson


Ideal Bald Eagle Viewing Areas in Southern Idaho

  • Along the Snake River corridor: Massacre Rocks, Minidoka NWR, Milner Lake, Dierkes Lake, Centennial Waterfront Park, Niagara Springs WMA, Box Canyon to Thousand Springs, Hagerman WMA, Upper Salmon Falls Dam.
  • Camas Prairie: Stanton Crossing, Silver Creek area, Carey Lake WMA.
  • Jim Sage Loop: From Albion to Castle Rocks/City of Rocks and back around Jim Sage Mountain to Albion.

If You Go: Make it a day trip and plan a route. Bring warm clothes, binoculars, spotting scope and camera. Bald eagles are often seen along water boundaries, power poles, fence poles and the ground.

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