Return of the Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Despite objections from Benjamin Franklin, the bald eagle was selected as our national emblem on June 20, 1782, because of its long life, great strength, and majestic looks. It is estimated that our national bald eagle population was about 100,000 during the 1700s.

The first major decline in population occurred during the late 1800s. Large numbers of the birds were killed indiscriminately prior to federal protection under the Bald Eagle Act of 1940. The heavy use of DDT and other pesticides, which became widespread by the 1940s, also had a significant effect on the bald eagle population because these chemicals inhibited successful reproduction by making the shells of the eagle eggs too thin to hatch.

By the 1960s a single bald eagle sighting along the Delaware River was rare; this is particularly noteworthy since hundreds of bald eagles previously wintered along the river. Bald eagles are predominantly fish eaters, which is why they build their nests and live near water, and why they migrate to open water areas during the winter months.

Today, the number of bald eagles found nationally and in the Delaware River Basin has rebounded dramatically. One very important reason for the return of the eagle was the federal government's decision in 1972 to ban the manufacturing of DDT in the United States. Programs by the Delaware River Basin Commission and other agencies and organizations to keep the river and its tributaries clean, the fish abundant, and the habitat undisturbed also have been a big help in the recovery of the bald eagle population throughout the basin.

The 120-mile stretch of the Delaware River from Hancock, N.Y. to the Delaware Water Gap is one of the largest and most important inland bald eagle wintering habitats in the Northeastern United States. This is based upon consistency of annual use and the numbers of eagles confirmed to be using the upper Delaware. This region provides areas of open water for foraging and prey (such as fish, waterfowl, and carrion), as well as adequate undisturbed upland areas for perching and roosting . . . all requisites for suitable overwintering habitat. The Delaware River is considered an "essential" bald eagle winter habitat, as specified by the Northern States Bald Eagle Recovery Plan. Preservation of "essential habitat" is considered necessary for the full recovery and long-term survival of this species. The Delaware River also has been nominated as one of the 10 "core" bald eagle wintering areas within the 24-state Northern States region (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation [NYSDEC], 1999), sites where protection must be assured, in perpetuity, as one of the recovery objectives.

Nearly 100 observers counted 401 bald eagles in New York State during the January 2009 annual midwinter survey coordinated by NYSDEC. In Southeast New York, which includes the upper Delaware River Basin as well as the lower Hudson River Basin, 199 bald eagles were counted, or nearly half of the statewide total. NYSDEC Endangered Species Unit Chief Peter Nye noted in the 2009 midwinter survey report:

"Statewide survey results appear to be going back and forth over the past few winters ... Certainly our resident eagles continue to make up a considerable and growing percentage of this 'wintering' number each year."

Only 41 bald eagles were counted statewide during the first survey conducted in January 1979.

NYSDEC and the National Park Service are involved in a cooperative study to monitor both wintering and breeding eagles along the upper Delaware River, which provides a border between New York and Pennsylvania. They observed 18 pairs nested in that interstate river stretch in 2009, of which 15 were successful in fledging 34 young (i.e., reaching the age when eagles can fly and be banded). This was the highest number of fledged young yet recorded along the river.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission reports that 156 active nesting pairs were observed in 46 of the state's 67 counties in 2008, up from 132 in 2007, which produced a record number of 171 eaglets fledged. There were only three known nesting pairs in 1980. The Poconos and upper Delaware River region were home to one of the three largest concentrations of eagle nests in the state. Bald eagles have even colonized Philadelphia, where a pair successfully nested in 2008 after an apparent nest failure in 2007. The 2009 statewide midwinter survey counted a record 185 eagles, including 108 adults and 77 immature or unknown aged birds.

Bald eagles are not limited to the upper Delaware watershed. According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, 282 bald eagles were counted in January 2009, the largest number since the annual statewide midwinter survey began in 1978 when fewer than 10 were observed. 191 bald eagles, or 68% of the statewide total, were counted in the Delaware River Basin. Southern New Jersey's Delaware Bay region continued to host the majority of the state's wintering birds. The statewide number of active breeding pairs, those which laid eggs, has increased from a low of one in 1982 to 69 in 2009. Most nests were located in the southern part of the state, particularly within about 12.5 miles of the Delaware River and Bay.

The Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife counted a record 120 bald eagles (77 adults and 43 immature birds) in the 2010 Mid-Winter survey. These numbers include resident nesting bald eagles as well as winter visitors. In 2009, the division monitored 56 active bald eagle nesting territories in Delaware, where 48 eagle pairs attempted nesting and successfully raised 60 young. During the 1980s, there were as few as two to four nesting pairs in the entire state.

Hopefully, ongoing bald eagle restoration programs will result in even greater numbers of this living symbol of America's freedom and spirit returning to a river which witnessed a nation's birth.

Did You Know?
  • Are bald eagles bald? No, their heads are covered with feathers which turn white as the birds mature. The word "bald" is a derivative of "balde," an old English word meaning white.
  • Eagles and other birds have three eyelids. There are two outside eyelids; the bottom is bigger than the top, so they blink up instead of down. The inner eyelid is called a nictitating membrane; it grows in the inner corner of the eye, right next to the tear duct, is transparent, and sweeps across the eye from side to side.
  • Bald eagles hold the record for the biggest bird nest ever built. One nest in Florida was over 20 feet deep, over nine feet wide, and weighed almost three tons!
  • Eagles have special feet with talons, not claws. Why? Talons are designed to carry things. An eagle foot has four muscular toes, powerful enough to hang onto a large fish as it carries it through the air.