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“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Do Eagles Ever Nest on Cape Cod?

(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,

I would like to know if any Bald Eagles nest on Cape Cod? If not, are they headed this way? I would also like to know about their diet. I understand that they like to eat fish. Do they only eat fish like Ospreys do, or will they eat other food? Must they always live around water?

– Dr. Stirrups, Osterville, MA


There is no real Dr. Stirrups,

At least, I don’t think there is. For the sake of patient-doctor confidentiality I’ve had to change the name of the real question asker. Let me explain why. Because I’m an internationally known question and answer guy, people like to approach me with bird inquiries nearly everywhere I go. Restaurants, gas stations, banks, the dump; it doesn’t matter where, there’s always someone with a question. And if they can’t find me, they ask someone who knows me. This is where Dr. Stirrups comes in. Dr. S is my wife’s gynecologist. That’s correct, gynecologist. Last week, in the middle of my wife’s annual exam, the good doctor popped his head up from doing…whatever, and said to her: “Hey, I have a bird question for your husband.” He then asked a series of eagle questions. As you can tell by the rather choppy phrasing of the questions, my wife wasn’t able to remember his exact wording. Apparently, she wasn’t in the best position to jot down any notes. Hopefully she’ll be better prepared for her next appointment.

Now that we have that cleared up, let’s talk about eagles. There are currently no Bald Eagles nesting on Cape Cod, but there used to be. In fact, until the eagle restoration program began in the 1980s, Sandwich was the site of the last active eagle nest in the entire state, and that was nearly a century ago. When settlers first arrived in America the Bald Eagle was a common bird, but then came the guns and the DDT and away went the eagles. Even though the Second Continental Congress made the Bald Eagle the national symbol of the United States, yet thousands were routinely killed, often for a bounty. People were discouraged from tarnishing a fabric flag, yet they were rewarded for shooting their majestic national symbol. It’s funny how we do things.

By the time we finally got a clue and put away the DDT and guns, there were only a few hundred nesting pairs of Bald Eagles in all of the contiguous United States, and there was not a single pair found nesting anywhere in Massachusetts. Not wanting to give up on the national symbol, restoration projects were put into place. The projects worked well and there are now several thousand eagles nesting in the lower forty-eight. And within the past twenty years the number of eagle nests in Massachusetts has gone from zero to over twenty.

This brings us to another one of Dr. Stirrups’ questions: Are breeding eagles headed to the Cape? Hmm. I’m not the guy you want to be making predictions. I had all my money with Bear Stearns. But I will say they are coming close. Right now there are eagles nesting around Lakeville, Middleboro, Fall River, and as I said earlier, they once nested in Sandwich. However, that was over a century ago, and in case you haven’t noticed there have been a few changes to the Cape since 1902. For example, back then there were only ten Christmas Tree Shops. The Cape’s growth is a problem for the eagles. Unlike Ospreys, which seem to like living near people, Bald Eagles hate us. Evidently, all those years of being shot at has given them an attitude. When choosing a nest site, eagles prefer very tall trees, near quiet bodies of water. Cape Cod has neither. Our lowly pitch pines aren’t nearly tall enough and our lakes and bays are busy with sailboats, kayaks and chubby black labs fetching sticks. However, we do have plenty of Osprey platforms. There’s always a chance an eagle might usurp on of those, provided it can figure out what usurp means.

You are correct when you noted that eagles love fish, but once again, unlike Ospreys, they aren’t stubborn about it. If the fishing isn’t very good they’ll grab a duck, rabbit or even a muskrat. Eagles also aren’t proud or fussy about how they get their food. Even though they are expert hunters, they have no problem stopping off for lunch at the nearest road-killed deer or washed-up school of fish. They will even steal food from other birds of prey. Other birds rarely say “no” to a Bald Eagle.

Last is the part about wondering if eagles only live around water. I think given a choice they certainly would live near water. But, as most of us know, human-free waterfront has become even harder to find. Some western eagles have adapted to nesting away from water, building their nests on high cliffs. Nesting away from water isn’t their favorite thing to do, but it does save them a ton of money on their property taxes.

I’m glad you are concerned about the Bald Eagle, Dr. Stirrups. I hope I’ve answered all of your questions. If you have any more questions, be sure to let me know. I’ll definitely give you the answers right away, so you have to probe me…for the info.