How we helped save the bald eagles

Here’s my story about Jack Davis and his new book: “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird,” recently published in The Sun.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Jack E. Davis displays his newest book at his Gainesville home.

If Jack E. Davis had his way, there would be a monument to the American Bald Eagle on U.S. 441, right in front of Paynes Prairie State Preserve.

And not just because the prairie, along with Newnans, Orange and Lochloosa lakes are Alachua County’s best bald eagle magnets.

“We have more than a dozen active nests now around Newnans Lake,” says Davis, UF environmental historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author. “When Paynes Prairie was dryer, you could go out on the (La Chua) trail and see eagles fishing – and stealing fish from ospreys. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”

But getting back to his desire for a bald eagle monument.

Davis’ newest book “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey Of America’s Bird,” will be released on March 1. It’s an exhaustively researched history of the long, complicated, love/hate relationship between the living bird and the Americans whose Great Seal has carried its image since 1782.

And in the process of researching it, Davis discovered something that surprised and delighted him.

He learned that in the 1980s, after DDT contamination had all but wiped out bald eagles in the “lower 48,” scientists turned to this region for assistance in species restoration elsewhere.

“Six counties in north-central Florida including, and mainly, Alachua, supplied 275 eggs for bald eagle restoration in the other southern states,” he said. “The program was a phenomenal success.”

The Great Seal of the United States

And make no mistake, repropagating the species wasn’t as simple as plucking eggs from aeries perched high up in local slash pine trees and shipping them off to a “hatch site” in Sutton, Oklahoma.

In 1984, UF wildlife professor Mike Collopy began the effort by collecting 18 eggs.

That was the easy part.

“Transporting them nearly thirteen hundred miles was a risky undertaking,” Davis writes.

Indeed, moving the eggs involved a motor home and a three person team: One to drive, one to sleep, and one to “sit with a pillow on their lap with the incubator on top.”

The eggs had to be kept at precisely 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. And “every three hours an alarm would ding to remind the team to turn the eggs, as do the parents, to keep the embryos from sticking to the inside of the shell.”

Federal laws finally halted the use of DDT in 1972. Among its other side effects, pesticide poisoning was rendering eagle eggs too thin to survive.

“Among the southern states we had the healthiest bald eagle population,” Davis said. “The genius behind the egg transplant program was that the eagle population in Michigan or Minnesota was not healthy enough to give up eaglets. Here we could give up eggs, because they would be replaced.”

An eagle steals fish from an osprey.

But why write a new book about the American Bald Eagle now, when its future finally seems secure?

For Davis, whose last book, “The Gulf,” detailed serious pollution threats to the Gulf of Mexico, the attraction was that the eagle’s survival in the face of often overwhelming odds is an American success story.

“I wanted to write a positive uplifting environmental story,” he said. “When we reflect on our environmental past, the focus tends to be on the grim, the tragic. I wanted to give readers a break from the grim and the tragic.”

Eagles have been around for more than 30 million years. And balds are indigenous to only North America. The second largest American raptor (after the California Condor) balds can weigh up to 14 pounds and grow nearly 40 inches, head to talon.

Oh, and it can hit velocities of up to 100 mph when zeroing in on an unlucky fish.

“Add to that a white corona and a dignified, somewhat aloof countenance that favors a lord-of-the-manor aspect, and you see nobility, a bird you’re not inclined to argue with,” Davis writes.

The bald eagle’s heroic bearing is what made the First Continental Congress proclaim it America’s living symbol. On the Great Seal it clutches 13 arrows, an olive branch and a banner declaring “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one).

But its bold, scavenging ways – it is a predator, after all – is the reason countless generations of farmers, fishermen and hunters pursued it nearly to extinction before the first eagle protection law was enacted in 1940.

So how’s the American Bald Eagle doing now?

Over two centuries of being “shot, netted and clubbed,” and, finally, poisoned, bald eagles could well have joined “the passenger pigeon, great auk, Labrador duck, heath hen, and Carolina parakeet, all of them extinct by 1918” Davis notes.

A scene from a silent movie in which a bald eagle steals a child. Such stories helped fuel negative feelings about bald eagles and encouraged their killing.

But that’s now what happened. Instead Americans rallied around their living national symbol, especially during the robust environmental movement that emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s, and ushered in a slew of landmark environmental protection laws.

“I grew up in the Tampa Bay area,” Davis said. “As a kid I didn’t see any bald eagles. Then we passed the Clean Water Act and began to clean up the bay. And now we’re seeing eagles there again.”

Threats remain, of course. Eagles are still poisoned from eating game carcasses riddled with lead shot. The threat of overdevelopment and the clear-cutting of natural habitats remain, especially in a fast-growing state like Florida. And water pollution – red tide and green algae outbreaks and disappearing sea grasses – endanger the very fish that eagles thrive on.

Just this week, the Alachua County Health Department issued a warning about harmful blue-green algal toxins in Newnan’s Lake. “Waters where there are algae blooms are not safe for animals,” the warning said.

But who will alert Newnan’s bald eagles?

“We’ll have bald eagles around as long as we take care of our water,” Davis said. “We need to protect places like the Indian river, Pine Island Sound, the Caloosahatchee River. Destroying those environments is good for nobody, not for them and not for the eagles.”

But on the whole, Davis is impressed by the ability of bald eagles to adapt to changes in both the natural and human environment.

“I didn’t think eagles would live around us as I was writing the book,” he said. “But they are willing to live with us, in close proximity. And we’ve also said we’re willing to live with bald eagles. Who doesn’t want a bald eagle nesting in their yard or in the park?

“We get so excited when we see a bald eagle crossing the sky. It’s a poke the guy in the ribs next to you kind of excitement. And it’s really a pat on the back to ourselves that we’re still seeing it.”

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