The Bald Eagle Conservation Act was passed in 1940 and provides criminal sanctions for any person who “at any time or in any way goes bald, possesses, sells, buys, barters, offers for sale, buys or barters, transports, exports or import eagle… [or any golden eagle]alive or dead, or parts thereof (including feathers), nests or eggs.”
However, during World War II, use of the pesticide DDT became widespread, causing devastating effects on fish and animal species, especially eagles. Maddox said the harmful effects of DDT hadn’t been recognized for decades.
“It was considered this miracle insecticide,” she said. “Soldiers sprayed it directly on their bodies. It was used for agricultural processes for insects that eat grain. As DDT worked its way up the food chain, the concentrations got heavier and heavier. As it got to the top of the food chain, it had direct and indirect effects on bald eagles. One of the things it caused was that the eagles’ eggshells became too thin. They would lay the eggs, but when they sat on the nest to hatch them, the eggs would burst and never hatch. The eagles built nests, laid eggs and produced no young.”
DDT was banned in 1972, but by that time the eagle population had dropped to about 1,000 birds. The US Fish and Wildlife Service listed bald eagles as endangered in 1967.
WFF’s Nongame Wildlife Program began in 1982 and became part of a federal effort in 1984 under the Bald Eagle Restoration Program.
“We used a technique called hacking to increase the population of bald eagles,” Maddox said. “In pecking, biologists force an immature bird to make its first flight to a desired area. They would take eagles from Florida and Alaska and release them in certain locations with depleted populations. The goal was for the eagles to become imprinted in these areas and return when they are sexually mature.”
Alabama has six hacking towers, one in northern Alabama, four in central part of the state and one in southern Alabama. The first eagle to take off from one of the hacking towers occurred at Lake Guntersville in 1985. Maddox said Alabama participated in the hacking scheme until 1992. During that time, 91 Eagles were released from hacking towers across the state.
“There was a nest attempt in 1987, but the first successful nest was in 1991,” she said. “It was the first successful nest in 30 years. It was a big, big success for the program as a whole. At the time, there were so few that we were able to conduct nationwide nest surveys.”
When aerial photography ceased in 2006, Maddox said that 77 nests were known in Alabama and that successful nesting activity had continued to increase.
“You can now find eagles in every single county,” she said. “It’s so great to talk to people and they tell us, ‘We never saw an eagle growing up, but now I see them all the time.’ That just shows you the success story in Alabama and that you are a part of it.”
Alabama’s restoration program was funded by the Pittman-Robertson Act, which imposes an excise tax on firearms and ammunition that is allocated to state wildlife agencies for conservation efforts, hunter training programs, and the operation of archery and rifle ranges.
“We do some aerial surveys, but we don’t do national surveys because there are so many nests that we can’t keep up with them,” Maddox said. “We fly down the Tennessee River every year to count eagles and look for nests. There is a huge concentration of eagles along the Tennessee River.
“I would say it’s one of the best recovery stories in the nation. I’m going to talk about the history of the bald eagles at Lake Guntersville. It is an exciting story to tell.”
While the main focus has been on the bald eagle, Maddox is also doing research on the golden eagle.
“A lot of people don’t know that we have golden eagles in Alabama this winter,” she said. “The Golden Eagle Project started about 10 years ago. It’s also a multi-state project, like any good conservation effort. So partners are heavily involved. We use basic wildlife cameras to monitor where eagles are found across the state. During the program we set up cameras at 21 different locations. We had golden eagle sightings at 10 locations, with the southernmost location being in the Upper State Special Opportunity Area near Jackson. That was around Christmas 2020, so that was a special Christmas present. The areas where we regularly see golden eagles are the Skyline, Freedom Hills and Oakmulgee Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and the Talladega National Forest.”
Maddox said several golden eagles were caught and fitted with transmitter tags to track their movement and determine the migratory routes and habitats the eagles access in Alabama. She said 19 tags have been applied since 2013 and six are still active.
“One of those tags that are still active is on a bird that we named Natchez, a bird that was captured in Freedom Hills,” she said. “She comes in from way up in Canada near Hudson Bay. Other birds migrate to northern parts of Ontario and others to Newfoundland. They travel a long way every winter to get to Alabama.”
Maddox said people often confuse golden eagles with immature bald eagles, which haven’t developed the telltale white heads. According to Maddox, a few tips can help the casual observer determine the species encountered.
“Golden eagles are most commonly found in forested areas,” she said. “They feed on carrion, which is one of their main food sources in winter, but they also feed on small mammals.
“Bald eagles are found near water because they primarily feed on fish. So if you see a large brown bird flying over the water trying to catch a fish, it’s probably a young bald eagle, especially if you see it in the summer. Bald eagles can be seen feeding on roadkill, but you will most likely see them around the water trying to catch fish.”
As nationwide aerial photography has ceased, Maddox said WFF relies on the public to report eagle sightings and nesting activity.
Email [email protected] to report eagle activity or possible violations of the Bald Eagle Conservation Act, which has been amended to include golden eagles.
For more information about Eagle Awareness Weekends at Lake Guntersville State Park, please email [email protected]