Creature Feature: Bald eagles own the skies once again

Columbus Audubon President’s Letter
March 23, 2017
EcoWeekend and the Universe
March 23, 2017

By Tim Daniel
Ohio Division of Wildlife

It was a magical year in 1980: Pac-Man was the most popular arcade game, Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open with a record-breaking score, and Darth Vader shocked Luke Skywalker by revealing he was his father. It was also the year that wildlife biologists in Ohio fostered the first eaglet into an existing bald eagle nest at the Ottawa Shooting Club on Sandusky Bay. It was a necessary intervention: Ohio had only four active eagle nests one year before.

It looked bleak for the bald eagle in Ohio. However, a program was already in motion to bring the birds back.

“The ODNR began with a four-pronged approach to bald eagle restoration,” said Mark Shieldcastle, a retired wildlife biologist and a former leader of the Bald Eagle Management Program with the ODNR Division of Wildlife.

“First was to monitor existing nests, followed by fostering eaglets from other nests, developing good landowner relationships in critical habitat areas, and the rehabilitation of injured eagles,” Shieldcastle added.

Eaglets born in captivity were obtained from zoos and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those birds were placed in the nests of eagles whose eggs failed to hatch. Each individual bird was considered critical to the population and to the future.

Every attempt was made to help a bird recover and return it to the wild. Man-made nests, constructed to resemble natural structure, were developed in areas where existing nests were in poor condition.

It didn’t happen overnight, but nesting eagles found clear skies and lots of nest options as the Bald Eagle Management Program progressed. The birds proved to be more tolerant of human disturbance than initially believed.

“Bald eagles were nesting in areas near people that no one dreamed they would,” Shieldcastle said. “The goal was to establish 20 nests by the year 2000, and we had more than 50 by then.”

Nesting pairs topped 100 for the first time in 2004. The bald eagle was officially delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007, and Ohio followed by removing it from state listing in 2012. In 2013, an estimated 187 breeding pairs produced 189 young. Ohio had more than 200 breeding pairs in 2016. This remarkable recovery has been credited to the intense recovery plan as well as an apparent behavioral shift in habitat requirement by the species.