About the Bald Eagles of Paradise

It was an impromptu outside-Arnold’s-Ranch-and-Home meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog and Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association on South Main in Ellensburg. The only agenda item was bald eagles – specifically those visible on drives up and down and around the county, or perched from time to time at town edges.

Both fellow attendees were excited about bald eagles. Why not? It is, after all, our national symbol and striking in appearance. Of course, had Ben Franklin succeeded, our national bird would be the wild turkey. In his argument, Ben described the bald eagle as “a bird of bad moral character: he does not get his living honestly… besides, he is a rank coward!” He almost pulled it off, missing by one vote in Congress in 1782. The bald eagle has been our icon ever since.

Today, probably, most of us see the bald eagle as a beautiful, strong, independent creature. In some Native American traditions, the soaring eagle could touch the Great Spirit, and its sacred feathers might then teach one to fly above the mundane – to see the truth as Great Spirit might see it. Most of us, I think, feel a bit of awe just seeing these birds.

That was not always the case. For a century we did not well honor our national bird. Until the federal protections of 1940, bald eagles were widely shot, trapped and poisoned by sheep ranchers worried about predation, shot by fishermen intending to protect the fish resource and electrocuted by power lines. Beyond that direct abuse, eagles (and many other raptors) suffered the effects of DDT.

That pesticide washed into waterways, accumulating in fish the birds were eating. DDT, its breakdown products, and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides (and hydrocarbons such as PCBs) posed an insidious threat to birds. Since the chemicals are persistent (they don’t break down) they tend to concentrate as they move through the food chain. Hydrocarbons accumulated in fatty tissues in females’ bodies, particularly in the fatty tissues of the ovaries, and eggshells became thinner or nonexistent, so eggs broke while being laid or during incubation. (This is not unlike the concentration of arsenic and other metalloid poisons in the fatty tissues of humans’ reproductive systems – thus early arsenic treatments for syphilis and the lack of children of young ranchers settling along certain water sources in western arid rangelands. But I digress…)

In 1976, the Feds and most states placed the bald eagle on the endangered species list. Once DDT was banned, and the killing was stopped, bald eagle populations rebounded. On August 9, 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species.

Here in Central Washington, we get a fair number of wintering bald eagles dropping in from the country north of us, and returning north in mid-spring. There are also several nesting pairs in our part of the state, so we have a few year‑round birds.

As our meeting degenerated, eagle tales were flowing like cool malt beverages at The Tav. A young rancher stopped for a second. “You know, we feed a lot of eagles,” he smiled. At one member’s protest that eagles hunt their own food, he chuckled, “Yeah…but mostly what the flocks of eagles find is the afterbirth left on the ground when our calves are born!”

In keeping with the wishes of our little think tank’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. Bald eagle’s scientific name is Haliaeetus leucocephalus. It may reach 12 pounds and have a wingspan of eight feet. As with most raptors, the female will be larger than the male. This eagle favors open waterways and riparian areas, where it finds the fish on which it generally makes its living. In addition to the smorgasbord provided by the valley’s calving cows in late winter into spring, it will also eat waterfowl, rabbits and the occasional small dog or cat.

If you want to travel a bit, you will likely still find a few eagles around the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center at Howard Miller Steelhead Park near Rockport, on the west side of the north Cascades. If you want to see them from the comfort of home or office, google “eagle cams,” or keep an eye on Fish and Wildlife’s site,, for the updated eagle cam (along with several others for fish and wildlife).

Locally, bald eagles will be found in riparian areas up and down the Yakima River. As local cows drop more calves, they will be commonly seen around the Canyon entrance and across the Kittitas Valley. This is a perfect time to gather family and friends, cameras and binoculars, and go get some fresh air while enjoying the bald eagles of Paradise.

Happy almost-spring.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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