Eagle population flying high on P.E.I.

The flourishing bald eagle population on P.E.I. is being called a success story.

'When you protect eagles, you're not just protecting the eagles'

Experts estimated that there are close to 50 bald eagle nests on the Island. (CBC)

The flourishing bald eagle population on P.E.I. is being called a success story.

At one point in the 1980s wildlife biologists could find just one eagle's nest on the Island. This year, it's estimated that there are close to 50, and as many as 500 birds.

"We had one nest — one nest down Brudenell — and, yeah, that was it," wildlife biologist Gerald MacDougall told Island Morning host Mitch Cormier.

"The population has really expanded."

MacDougall retired from PEI Fish and Wildlife in 2014. He spent his career studying the birds and he believes a number of factors played a part in the dwindling number of bald eagles 40 years ago.

Not only was it legal to hunt the birds, but he said it could be done during any season and didn't require a licence until the mid-1960s. 

The number of nests on the Island has grown from one to 50. (Submitted by Gerald MacDougall)

Then, there was the loss of habitat and a pesticide called DDT. 

"That seemed to cause a lot of headaches for eagles across North America and other birds as well," said MacDougall. 

"It caused the eggshells to thin and so when they lay their eggs the eggshells were so thin they would break when they sat on them."

"We tracked it, [the population] seemed to have moved from east to west," said MacDougall. "It expanded that way."

More protection needed

Despite the increase he said more still needs to be done to help the birds. 

"Do they need more protection?" he said. 

"They absolutely do because we are still losing habitat." 

When we lose the eagles, we lose. We lose a lot.- Gerald MacDougall, wildlife biologist

There are also concerns about lead in the environment taking its toll. 

"These eagles are scavengers and if somebody shoots a deer, we'll say in Nova Scotia or coyotes here on P.E.I. and they leave the carcass in the field ... there's little pieces of lead from the lead bullets in the animals, said MacDougall.

"An eagle doesn't have to ingest very much lead to the kill it and often too it's not just lead poisoning, but it causes a loss of balance and disorientation."

That disorientation makes it difficult for them to catch their food or can cause them to fly into wires and get electrocuted. Plus, he said, it's not just eagles suffering at the hands of lead, it's killing other birds as well. 

"More needs to be done," said MacDougall. "When you protect eagles, you're not just protecting the eagles — you're protecting a lot of wildlife. 

"The eagles are at the top of the food chain so they're like an environmental barometer. So when we lose the eagles, we lose, we lose a lot." 

More from CBC P.E.I. 

With files from Island Morning