LITTLE ROCK – June 20 marks a special day for the American bald eagle. In Arkansas and nearly every other state, thanks to the American Eagle Foundation’s work with Congress and state legislatures, it’s now recognized as American Eagle Day, and the date is significant for being the same day in 1782 that America’s founding fathers affixed the image of the bald eagle to the Great Seal of the United States.
Coincidentally, June 20 is usually when the number of fledgling bald eagles from each year’s hatch are at their peak in the Arkansas outdoors, according to Karen Rowe, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission nongame migratory bird program coordinator.
That day, "they will be up and flying, and the state’s resident eagle population will be at its highest," Rowe said. The bald eagle is one of the great success stories of the federal Endangered Species Act, but it still lives a precarious life in the wild from the moment of birth.
Rowe says 70 to 80 percent of bald eagles do not survive their first year. Lead poisoning, electrocution and collisions with electric transmission lines and vehicles are chief causes of fledgling deaths. The survival rate improves in year two, though 30 to 40 percent of the remaining population will die. However, by the time an American bald eagle reaches three or four, Rowe says the odds are high it will live 10 or 15 years.
And that is a far cry better from where America’s symbol stood in the 1960s, when the estimate of nesting pairs nationally fell below 500 and it was placed on the federal Endangered Species list. In the 1960-70s, nesting bald eagles were absent in Arkansas, Rowe said. Protection of eagles through laws dealing with the use of the pesticide DDT, cutting out lead shot in waterfowl hunting and other measures helped turn around the eagle plight to where by 2007, eagles were no longer classified as "endangered." Eagles now are estimated to number 13,000-14,000 pairs nationwide.
An actual count of eagles is no longer taken these days, simply because when eagles were no longer listed as "endangered," Arkansas lost its federal funding to conduct surveys. Arkansas’s eagle population hit an important milestone in 1983 when the first eagle nest in the state since the 1950s was found on the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge. Several years later the state totaled 10 nests. By 2008, the last count in the state, Arkansas was home to 146 eagle nests. The federal Endangered Species Act Recovery goal for Arkansas was 10 pairs of nesting bald eagles.
"I think it’s safe to say bald eagles nesting in Arkansas have greatly exceeded that original goal," Rowe said.
Rowe says biologists aren’t sure what initially brought the eagle nests back to Arkansas in the 1980s, as eagles generally nest close to where they were fledged.
"Maybe there was something historical, something in their genetic makeup to know where to go," Rowe said. "Or maybe after the protection of the bird began, a pair of bald eagles found that the Dale Bumpers White River National Refuge was an ideal area to nest, which was the first for Arkansas."
Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a proclamation in April making Arkansas among 47 states to recognize American Bald Eagle Day on June 20. The day helps bring attention to the eagles’ recovery, but it also spells out that more must be done to sustain the species. The bald eagle and golden eagle remain under federal protection law enacted in 1940 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The AGFC will be meeting in June to approve several measures, one of which will be strengthening state regulations and penalties to the federal level for harassing or harming a bald or golden eagle.
There are other threats, Rowe says. Although the ban on DDT nearly a half-century ago was instrumental in saving the eagle, new, stronger rodent poisons are being used and are lethal to eagles which eat the poisoned rodent.
Eagle Watch weekends are now a regular and popular part of Arkansas state parks’ winter schedules, and waterfowl hunters now take note of the many opportunistic eagles following the migration of ducks and other birds in the fall. Eagles are tied to natural water bodies, such as the rivers or the hardwood swamps of the Delta, but also are found in good numbers around DeGray Lake, Lake Ouachita or Beaver Lake, Rowe said. The numbers swell late in the year.
"As the ponds freeze up in the north, we get eagles from northern states such as Michigan, Minnesota, and from Canada that come through Arkansas," said Rowe, who is based out of the AGFC office at Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area.
Poor shots in the duck blind can be an eagle’s best friends.
"I’ve watched eagles over Hallowell Reservoir. I know there is an eagle hunting over Halowell because the duck flocks suddenly take flight. All of a sudden the eagle will swoop down, he will have found himself a cripple."
Juvenile bald eagles often are mistaken for golden eagles because "they do not develop the white on their heads and tail until they are four," she said.
Then, bald eagles look like the recognizable symbol of the United States, and they also begin their nesting at that age. And, thanks to conscientious efforts by many organizations including the AGFC, they are prolific to their native habitat again.
Rowe hopes the same success in restoring the eagle population in Arkansas will be seen in such birds as the northern bobwhite and King Rail, a rare species found in marshy wetlands.