Most Americans are familiar with the population comeback bald eagles have made in North America. The image recovery this bird has made in some parts of the country is a much lesser-known story.
DDT is considered to be the primary cause for the eagle’s mid-20th century drop in numbers, but before the pesticide’s invention in 1946, the United States’ national symbol had another enemy – the rifle. Before bald eagles enjoyed coast-to-coast admiration and Federal protection, some people viewed them as harmful predators that needed to be eliminated. This unfortunate perception of bald eagles is a well-documented, but mostly forgotten episode in the history of one of North America’s best-known birds.
“The eagle is a curse to the rest of the animal kingdom and the sooner it is exterminated, the better off the game will be.”
In case the eagle-hate in this newspaper editorial wasn’t clear enough, here’s another from the same year:
“The eagle is a nice bird. We like to see it – on twenty-dollar gold pieces… In life, it is a destroyer of food and should be killed wherever found.”
The reference to “twenty-dollar gold pieces” indicates neither of these editorials were penned recently. The first is an excerpt from an editorial in the Alaskan newspaper, the Valdez Miner. The second is from another Alaskan newspaper, the Douglas Island News. Both were written in 1920, a time when bald eagles were perceived as a threat to the territory’s (Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959) salmon-fishing industry.
For most years from 1917 to 1953, a bald eagle bounty that grew from 50 cents to $2 per bird was in effect in the Alaska Territory. During this time period, more than 120,000 killed birds were reported in the territory treasurer’s annual report. (In the two-year legislative period of 1927-28, alone, bounties were paid for 27,843 bald eagles.) Added to this was the incalculable number of wounded birds that later died or kills for which no bounty was paid.
Steadily increasing criticism, coupled with studies that showed the impact of eagle predation on Alaska’s salmon industry wasn’t as great as some purported it to be, finally ended Alaska’s eagle-hunting in the early 1950s.
Thankfully for bald eagles and those who enjoy them, humans have a better understanding of these birds today. Also, thanks to conservation efforts, bald eagle populations have increased in recent decades. One of the places this abundance can be noticed is Missouri. In winter, an annual influx of migrating eagles from the north often swells the state’s eagle numbers to more than 2,500 birds.
In this area, people can learn more about bald eagles at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Eagle Days event on Jan. 21 and Jan. 22 at MDC’s Springfield Conservation Nature Center. The free event will be from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Jan. 21 and 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 22. Indoors, people can see a captive bald eagle from Springfield’s Dickerson Park Zoo. Outside, spotting scopes will be set up at the Springfield-Greene County Park Board’s Lake Springfield Boathouse and Marina to catch views of eagles that winter at Lake Springfield. For information, call 417-888-4237. Information about this event and about bald eagles can also be found at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.