Nova Scotia

U.S.-Canada bald eagle program hailed a success as population thrives

Any Americans tempted by the website Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins will be heartened to learn the Nova Scotia island has a long history of restoring symbols of American pride.

One of the U.S.'s most loved national symbols was revived with Nova Scotia's help

Many American bald eagles like these two eaglets can trace their roots to Cape Breton. (CBC)

Any Americans tempted by the website Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins will be heartened to learn the Nova Scotia island has a long history of restoring symbols of American pride.

Cape Breton has quietly helped revive the bald eagle, which was on the U.S. endangered species list in the 1980s but is thriving today. 

"There were zero nesting pairs in the entire state [of Massachusetts]. The last pair we knew about disappeared about 1905 down on Cape Cod," says Bill Davis of Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife.

'Cape Breton's involvement in the eagle restoration was absolutely critical,' says American wildlife biologist Bill Davis. (CBC)

The U.S. eagle population struggled to survive as humans moved into eagle territory, depriving them of habitats, and pesticides like DDT took a devastating toll.

Davis turned to Nova Scotia for help. He knew its eagle population was thriving. Peter Austin-Smith, now retired, was a wildlife biologist for the province at the time.

"They wanted us, if we could, to supply some young eaglets so they could re-establish their breeding population in Massachusetts," he says.

What followed was a transplant mission like no other. Technicians climbed Cape Breton trees, bagged the young eagles, and flew them to New England.

To catch the eaglets, wildlife biologists must first climb up to their nests. In this photo, an American scientist catches eagles to put a tracking band on their legs. They were then released back into the wild. (CBC)

Austin-Smith remembers it well. "I would not have liked to be the pilot, because they put dead fish along with the eaglets on board the airplane, so you can imagine the smell when they got down to Massachusetts."

American wildlife biologists took over, raising the eaglets in cages so comfortable that they were nicknamed condominiums. They fed them some of that dead fish through a hole in the top, while taking care that the eaglets did not see any humans, to prevent them from associating food with people.

When the eaglets grew strong enough to fly, they were released into the wild. Soon, a female eagle from Cape Breton mated with a male from Michigan to produce an egg and eventually an eaglet of their own.

It was a cause for celebration: American schoolchildren came to watch the progress and the Nova Scotia flag was flown high.

Project tightened U.S.-Canadian co-operation

And in the years to come, so too did the American eagle. The 36 Cape Breton eaglets relocated to the U.S. spawned more than 500 eagles to soar above the land of the free.

(Oddly enough, the Smithsonian says Ben Franklin opposed the bald eagle as the national symbol on the ground that it's "of a bad moral character" and "a rank coward." He preferred the turkey, whose worst sins were being "a little vain and silly.")

The Americans covered all of the expenses of the project, which has led to greater co-operation between the wildlife officials on both sides of the border.

"We felt pretty good, let's put it that way. [It's] one of our projects that really paid off. We thought we were doing the right thing," says Austin-Smith.

In Nova Scotia, Peter Austin-Smith led the effort to bring Canadian birds to the U.S. (CBC)

The eagle population in all of New England is now stronger than it has been in a century, according to Davis.

"Cape Breton's involvement in the eagle restoration was absolutely critical. The future looks very, very bright thanks to the co-operation that we received from Cape Breton and Nova Scotia and the strong and robust eagle population you continue to enjoy up there," he said.

The American eagle, that national icon, is now healthy once again. The American Nature Conservancy says it was upgraded to "threatened" status in 1996 and taken off the list altogether in 2007. 

Thanks to the Canadian connection, it's also become a symbol of international co-operation.

Cape Breton, meanwhile, continues to spread its welcoming wings for any Americans in need of sanctuary — humans or eagles.


Tom Murphy is co-host of CBC Nova Scotia's supper hour news program and correspondent for The National. He also hosts Land and Sea and is brother to Bob.


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