PEI

8 things to know about bald eagles

Bald eagles are a much more common sight on P.E.I. than they were just a few decades ago. Brought back from the brink of endangerment, the eagle population here could still use some help, say conservationists.

'People could shoot them, even without a license'

Once hated and feared, now eagles are admired and protected. (Lorne Kelly)

Bald eagles are a much more common sight on P.E.I. than they were just a few decades ago.

Brought back from the brink of endangerment, the eagle population here could still use some help, say conservationists. 

"There's still little protection for the habitat," said Gerald MacDougall, an eagle expert and vice-president of Nature PEI.

He's interested in starting an adopt-a-tree program where instead of harvesting large, tall trees in which eagles have nested, landowners could be paid a fair price to leave the trees standing.

Want to know more about these magnificent birds, with their wing span of up to two metres? MacDougall filled us in on some cool facts. 

1. People used to hate them

There were no eagles on P.E.I. just 50 years ago. (Submitted by Annette Bellevue)

People now love to share their sightings and photos of eagles, but it was a lot different in the old days — Islanders used to hate and fear eagles, MacDougall said. 

"Eagles were considered a nuisance," he said. "People could shoot them, even without a license." 

They killed so many, in fact, the eagle population on the Island in 1954 was recorded as zero. It wasn't until 1966 a nesting pair was found in Brudenell, P.E.I., but two years later someone shot one of the pair, and another couple didn't return for a full decade.

The pesticide DDT also devastated the eagle and other bird populations on P.E.I., making their egg shells so thin they'd break when nested on.

As a love of nature has returned to our culture and laws were passed making it illegal to kill eagles, the population has thrived and is now estimated at about 500 to 600 eagles on P.E.I. alone, MacDougall said. 

2. The eyes have it

Female eagles usually hatch before their male siblings. (Submitted by Gerald MacDougall)

Eagles fly higher than any other birds and can see five times better than a human, perceiving more colours and less shadow. They can spot a bunny for lunch three kilometres away. 

They also have a third eyelid, MacDougall notes, so they can clear their eyes without blinking. 

3. Big Bird's nest

Eagles build their nests high in P.E.I.'s tallest trees, usually white spruce. (Submitted by Gerald MacDougall )

Bald eagles' nests really can resemble the huge nest of sticks that Big Bird used on Sesame Street — because they return to the same nest year after year and add material, the nests can weigh up to a ton and can measure nearly two metres across and three metres deep. 

"Eagles nests, you climb right in there, it's sturdy, you can sit right in there," MacDougall said of his past adventures banding baby eagles.

Pairs won't nest within about three kilometres of one another, but once nesting season is over Maritime eagles will fly hundreds of kilometres, as far south as Maine. 

4. Ladies first

These baby eagles will likely stick around the Maritimes their whole lives. (Submitted by Gerald MacDougall )

Eagles usually hatch two chicks per year, but evolution seems to have decided it's best for the female chicks to hatch first. MacDougall supposes that's because older siblings are more likely to survive as they're larger and stronger, and females are essential to the species' thriving for breeding.

Female eagles are also larger than males. 

5. Love is forever... mostly

Eagles mate for life, unless one of them dies — then they'll find a replacement. 

And that life could be long: eagles live in the wild typically for 25 years, and in captivity they've been known to live 50 years or more.

6. They're fearless

This eagle looks more annoyed than afraid. (Bay Tracadie)

Unlike other birds, eagles do not look over their shoulders while hunting — because nothing in its right mind would get in an eagle's way, MacDougall said. That's probably why so many sports teams use the name, he notes. 

Even when humans are banding their eaglets, the parents will not attack. Where ospreys have been known to tear at conservation officers so violently that they need stitches, eagles will simply fly to a nearby tree, watch and squawk.  

"Maybe because they are at the top of the food chain and they're not used to seeing you as a predator. But they're one of the easiest birds to band," MacDougall said. 

Smaller, more agile, birds will pester eagles that fly near their nests, but eagles will generally ignore them or swat them away with a large wing, MacDougall said. 

7. But they should be afraid

Eagles can use their sharp talons to kill very large prey, but prefer to take the easy route of eating carrion or roadkill. (Submitted by Gerald MacDougall )

An increasing cause of eagle mortality? Vehicles, said MacDougall.

Since eagles' second-favourite meal — after fish — is roadkill, they frequently get caught out while in the middle of lunch. 

In years past, MacDougall said, Maritime farmers left out their dead animals for eagles to eat, and he said he's seen dozens of eagles gather at these sites, especially in winter when food is more scarce. 

8. They're not really bald

Large adult eagles with their distinctive white heads are easy to spot. (CBC)

The feathers on a bald eagle's head are white.

Buying and selling eagle feathers is actually illegal on the Island. 

P.E.I.'s Mi'kmaq people, for whom the eagle is a very important symbol, use the feathers ceremonially and have an agreement with the province to access the feathers from birds that are found dead. 

MacDougall notes the eagle population is the protector of the Mi'kmaq, whose culture has seen a parallel renaissance in the past few decades. 

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca