A bald eagle sighting in Delaware used to be about as common as an Eagles Super Bowl win. But this extremely rare bird has made a comeback around the country and in Delaware too, especially in the past few decades.
The bald eagle population plunged because of a variety of factors, with one of the most well-known being the effects of the pesticide DDT. And before strict federal protections were put in place, human predators were a problem too.
“There are those in any community in which an eagle may appear who are immediately seized with a determination to kill it for no other reason than that it is an eagle and a bird of large proportions,” one government official wrote in 1939.
Between 1983 and 1987, survey work found only four confirmed bald eagle nests in Delaware, reporter Molly Murray wrote in a 2015 News Journal article.
Now, among the buzzards and red-tailed hawks riding the wind above Delmarva it’s not uncommon to spot the white head of an eagle as well. You might also spot eagles, apparently unconcerned about their image as the noble national bird, sitting by the highway devouring roadkill.
I spoke to raptor biologist Jordan Brown from the Division of Fish and Wildlife to find out more about how bald eagles are doing in Delaware.
How many bald eagles are in Delaware?
The eagle population estimates are actually a little out of date. The state does aerial surveys every five years and the last one was in 2018, Brown said. At that point, there were about 132 nests, although some were empty. There were at least 77 active nests with successful breeding pairs. However, she said, “we can't be sure that ... those are the only nests that exist.”
Seventy-seven nests is of course a huge uptick from the 80s, but it’s also a bump up from a few years ago. In 2014, a state biologist reported that they had found 54 successful breeding pairs the previous year, per the News Journal.
Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in in 2007, Brown said, and are now considered a species in need of conservation in Delaware.
How have bald eagles fit into the food chain here?
Buzzards used to be undisputed lords of the carrion here, but they now have to compete with eagles.
You’ll still spot plenty of vultures around, though, and Brown is not too concerned about their population.
“I don’t think that the competition is hurting either species.”
Eagles love fish, and also have been known to eat birds, reptiles, amphibians and other animals, along with deer carcasses and other carrion. Brown said she hasn’t heard reports about them eating household pets like a cat.
“I would actually be probably more concerned by a great horned owl than an eagle,” she said. “... Eagles, in my opinion, tend to be a little bit more lazy, so a cat might be a hard prey to go after.”
They also have a habit of letting ospreys do the work of hunting.
“A lot of times they will go head to head with osprey to take what the osprey has fished out of the water for them,” Brown said.
Are bald eagles the only eagles around?
Bald eagles are certainly not the only raptor around, sharing space with the aforementioned owls and ospreys, as well as raptors like red-tailed hawks and falcons.
There is also the occasional golden eagle sighting, Brown said, but “those are primarily during migration. This is not a place that golden eagles typically breed.”
Is development or habitat loss a threat?
Brown said bald eagles tend to stay around bodies of water. Delaware has no shortage of bodies of water, so there’s plenty of territory to choose from.
“A large part of their diet is coming from oceans or other waters,” Brown said.
Eagles are a little less adaptable than ospreys, being less likely to nest on a telephone pole or some other feature of the urban landscape. They prefer tall mature trees. Still, they’ve been known to nest in telecommunication towers. Brown said a few bald eagles have made nests in fairly public areas in Delaware, and they seem to be successful every year.
“Like many species, not just birds, but most wildlife species are definitely affected by urbanization,” Brown said.
It’s hard to know, she said, how eagle populations now compare to, say, 100 years ago. Sometimes a species that rebounds in number and moves into a habitat where it didn’t live before can become a nuisance species. Balance is important. But she doesn’t see the eagle population as too high.
“I would say we’re going in the right direction,” she said. “But I wouldn’t be unhappy to see an increase.”