If you live in this area, you have probably seen a bald eagle or two sitting in a tree by the Uncompahgre River. If you’ve been lucky enough to walk along the river when the fish are spawning in December, sometimes you can see over a dozen of them in one walk.
Bald eagles are birds of prey because they eat meat. They have curved beaks and talons on their yellow feet. The talons help them catch their food. They eat ducks, fish, other water birds, prairie dogs, and carrion (dead meat). Their favorite food is fish. They have great eyesight and can see up to two miles away.
Bald eagles have the same mate throughout their life. Females can lay up to three eggs, but usually they lay one or two. When the eaglets hatch they have a fluffy down all over until their feathers come in. They are ready for their first flight after about three months. The eaglets stay with their parents for a couple of months after learning to fly. Then they go off on their own. Young eagles are called “immatures” or “juveniles” and have brown feathers all over. Every year they shed their feathers and grow new ones.
They have brown feathers until they are about 4 years old. They are considered adults at this time. Then they get their white head and tail feathers. Adult bald eagles can have a wingspan of six to seven feet and grown two and one-half to three feet tall. They like to live away from humans. They can live more than 20 years in the wild.
The bald eagle was picked as the national symbol because it represents strength, dignity and freedom. At first, the founding fathers debated between the wild turkey and the bald eagle. Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey would be a better choice because the bird seemed braver. It won’t fly away like other birds when predators are nearby. He called the bald eagle “a dirty dishonorable thief” because it sometimes steals food from other birds.
The bald eagle ended up winning the title in 1782.
In the 1970s bald eagles were put on the Endangered Species List because their population was dropping unexpectedly. Scientists figured out it was because of the use of the chemical DDT. DDT was sprayed on crops to control insects. Snakes and rodents ate the dead insects and then the eagles ate these animals. The DDT transferred from animal to animal and then into the eagles. DDT made the eagles lay thin-shelled eggs. The eggs broke easily so the number of bald eagles really went down.
When DDT stopped being used their numbers increased. Bald eagles were taken off the Endangered Species List in 1995 and put on the Threatened Species List by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They watch all wildlife, making sure their populations stay healthy.
All birds are protected by the federal government. Any feathers, eggs or dead birds found in the wild should be taken to their offices. The items are used for teaching purposes and given to Native Americans for religious ceremonies.
People are eagles’ main predator. Eagles are poached (shot and poisoned), hit along the side of the road when feeding, killed by flying into power lines, and accidents. Destruction of their habitat (cutting down trees, especially cottonwoods and other tall tree species along the rivers) is another reason for eagle decline.
Kelly Crane, the district manager of the Colorado Department of Wildlife, talked with us about the bald eagles who come here in the winter. Twenty to thirty eagles migrate to the Ridgway Reservoir and the Uncompahgre River in December to eat the Kokanee salmon. These fish are stocked every year in the reservoir. They are land-locked sockeye salmon, which means they have no access to the open ocean waters. In early winter, they swim up the river from the reservoir and into creeks to spawn (lay eggs), and then they die. The eagles feed on these dead and living salmon until the spawning period is over.
Then most of the eagles leave and go to lower elevations until February or March. At this time they travel back to their breeding or summer range to mate, lay eggs and raise their eaglets. Adult pairs go back to the same nests and repair them or add to them. Eagle nests have been found that were so big and strong, they could hold a VW Bug!
The DOW does not band any of these visiting eagles so we don’t know where these particular birds come from. Crane said that bald eagles winter in the lower 48 states including Colorado and summer in Alaska, Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the northwest and southeast United States. There are thirty active nests in Colorado.
We are so lucky to have these eagles visit us every December. When you are traveling from Ridgway to Montrose, especially in the winter, look in the tall cottonwood trees along the river or in the sky. You may see some of these majestic birds who decided to stay the winter!