As I worked on another injured bald eagle at the Delaware Valley Raptor Center (DVRC) this past July, I felt both blessed and cursed. Blessed because I have had the rare good fortune of working with eagles, and after 28 years of caring for birds of prey, that first sight of an eagle still makes my heart beat a little faster and my breath catch. Cursed because the eagles I see, more often than not, are in critical condition, many bleeding, emaciated and unable to stand.
The eagle that started my reflections on how and why eagles are injured was a bird I picked up on July 3 along the Lackawaxen River in Lackawaxen, PA. When we examined the eagle at the DVRC clinic, we found a bird that was emaciated, with an old, already fused break at the elbow joint of the left wing. X-rays confirmed the physical findings as well as the cause of the fracture: the eagle had been shot. Shotgun pellets were still lodged in the shattered joint and in the muscle of the left leg. The prognosis was clear; the eagle would never fly again; it would spend the rest of its life (potentially 45 more years) in captivity. Because the eagle was wearing leg bands, it could be positively identified. It was a New York-hatched bird, a four-year-old male banded at four weeks of age in the Cole Flats nest it had shared with two siblings.
I wondered if the person that shot this eagle had considered the full ramifications of his/her actions. The shooter had not only reduced New Yorks bald eagle population instantly by one, but had also removed from the wild an eagle on the cusp of breeding age. How many young eagles would not be produced over the next 10 to possibly 20 years because some thoughtless person had satisfied a momentary urge to blow an eagle out of the sky?
As I sat down at the computer to fill out this eagles chart, I sighed as I checked off the cause of injury, the gunshot confirmed box. Over the years we have had eagles, both bald and golden, admitted for various reasons, first-year birds starving because they had not mastered their hunting skills, lead poisoning, vehicle impact and even collisions with trains. But was being shot the primary reason for eagles being admitted to the Delaware Valley Raptor Center? I decided to check our records. The sad answer is yes.
We celebrated this Fourth of July with the announcement that the bald eagle has been removed from the federal endangered species list. But perhaps we shouldnt be so quick to celebrate. As long as eagles that live and winter in our area are being shot, they are still endangered.
What can we do about it? The first step is involvement. Teach your children that it is not only illegal to shoot an eagle; it is wrong. Make sure anyone you know who possesses a firearm knows that the maximum penalty for shooting an eagle under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act is two years in a federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine, and often, at the judges discretion, a public apology as well. Ask them to tell their friends. All eagle shootings are investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division. Pleas, often with offers of a reward, are made by law enforcement officials via the media for anyone with information about an eagle shooting to come forward. Tips are kept anonymous, yet most folks are reluctant. I suppose most of us would have to wrestle with our conscience if a friend or family member were the shooter.
We cherish the Upper Delaware and Pocono Mountain area for its amazing natural beauty, its pristine waterways, beautiful mountains and diversity of wildlife. Many of us are working to protect and preserve it, as we should. That same protection and preservation must be extended to the bald eagle, because all who live here are truly blessed by the presence of this bird. We owe it to ourselves, but especially to the bird that is the symbol of our country, to keep the bald eagle off an endangered species list of our own making.
(Stephanie Streeter established the Delaware Valley Raptor Center in Milford, PA in 1987.)
This bi-weekly column is a part of a valley-wide initiative to encourage an engaged citizenry. For a complete archive of visioning statements and for more about the visioning initiative visit upperdelaware.com.