(FYI: This column was written back in 2008. Things have changed since then. See the “The Eagles Have Landed, May 5, 2023, for a more recent eagle column.)
Dear Bird Folks:
Every time I see a hawk soaring high over head, I can’t help wondering if one of those birds could be an eagle. What are the odds of seeing a Bald Eagle on Cape Cod? And how do I know if the hawks that I’m seeing aren’t indeed eagles?
I don’t think I’m the guy who can tell you the “odds” of seeing a Bald Eagle. You might have to contact your bookie or some kind of eagle handicapper for an answer to that question. However, the fact that you are looking up in the sky does increase your odds over, say, the guy who has his head down worrying about stepping on a crack or looking for loose change.
The Bald Eagle became the national symbol of the United States way back in 1782. Ben Franklin tried to convince the other founding fathers that the Bald Eagle was not a proper choice. He argued that the Bald Eagle should not be chosen on moral reasons, since it often eats by attacking and stealing food from smaller birds. Old Ben was right, the eagle would have been a much better symbol for the IRS.
It became apparent early on that being given the title of National Symbol was of little benefit to the eagle. In fact, they were actually down right abused. Fearing that a single species of bird would drain the entire country’s fish supply, a bounty was placed on our national symbol’s head, or feet as it were. Offering two dollars for every pair of eagle’s feet, Alaska alone killed 100,000 eagles between 1917 and 1953.
Finally a law protected eagles from being shot, but that didn’t protect them from the millions of gallons of DDT that were being sprayed all over the country. By the time the guns and DDT were banned, the eagle population had fallen to less than 500 pairs in the contiguous United States. Although much slower to recover than the Osprey, the eagles, nonetheless, are slowly coming back.
Several nesting eagles can now be found around the Quabbin Reservoir in western Mass, and a few years back a single nest was discovered in the town of Lakeville, wherever that is. Back in the good old days, before the dumps were replaced by transfer stations, it was not unusual to find an eagle spending the winter poking through the bags at the dump. Living off junk food is probably a better explanation as to why the eagle became our national symbol.
There is no reason that someone like you, Darren, who is keeping an eye out, shouldn’t eventually find an eagle in these parts. Hardly a month goes by when an eagle isn’t reported here on the Cape. Just don’t be looking for the “bald” head. Most of the eagles that we see here are immature. Their signature white head isn’t seen until age four. Look for a big dark bird, with the emphasis on the big. Bald Eagles are way larger than the common Red-tailed Hawks. In flight, notice the white mottling that can be seen on the under wings and body. (The similar, but much less common to the Cape, Golden Eagle, has no white mottling on the body.) Most importantly, you should look for the flat wings while the bird is soaring. There is no up turned V-shape like a Turkey Vulture has or crook in the wings like the Ospreys have. We are talking dead flat, like a flying ironing board, but without the legs or the burn marks.
If you get tired of waiting for an eagle to show up in Chatham, you could always take a ride out to the Quabbin Reservoir. Some winters as many as fifty Bald Eagles can be found there. The southern end of the Connecticut River also has good numbers of wintering eagles. If all else fails you could go see that pair of eagles that live in Lakeville. Just don’t ask me how to get there.