The American Bald Eagle has long been a symbol of the American spirit, heralded for its freedom, strength, and vision. After hovering near the brink of extinction, the bald eagle has made a bold comeback, further justifying its iconic status with its resilience, becoming now a symbol of hope and restoration.
Considered sacred by some ancient American cultures, the eagle was often believed to have lived here long before humans arrived. In the 1780s, this majestic and indigenous North American bird was chosen to be the national symbol of the newly formed United States (though it wasn’t unanimous–Benjamin Franklin supported the wild turkey!)
Despite its revered status, the American eagle population had plummeted to little more than 400 nesting pairs by the year 1963. It was around then that President Kennedy wrote to the Audubon Society, saying: “The Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation. The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America. But as latter-day citizens we shall fail our trust if we permit the eagle to disappear.”
In Mississippi, natural habitat loss and the use of pesticides such as DDT (which weakens eggshells) had contributed to the bald eagle’s disappearance. “Back in the 50s and 60s, at the height of when the chemical DDT was being used around a lot of the fields around here, it was attributed to the loss of lots of eagles in the area,” said Chris Gurner, of the US Army Corps of Engineers. “After that, the eagle population declined drastically.”
This startling decline led to what is a true conservation success story. In 1972, DDT was outlawed across the U.S., and the following year bald eagles were placed on the endangered species list under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Through protection and ecological endeavors, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007, and since then populations in the area have grown exponentially. Last year, 28 eagles were spotted at Lake Enid, 26 at Lake Grenada, and four at Lake Sardis. While no longer considered endangered, they are still protected by other state and federal laws, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area now has a growing population of bald eagles, as well. In 2015 there were 46 active bald eagle nests along the 72 mile stretch of river. According to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, bald eagles can be spotted all year, though their numbers increase from October to January.
In a time when climate woes and conservation efforts seem most daunting, the bald eagle offers us hope. Wildlife photographer Bruce Brooks has spent years watching the population grow. Brooks said he has “seen a remarkable increase” in the number of nests since he began following them in 2013. “It was a big deal to see an eagle back then,” he recalled. “Photographers would alert each other and within hours a crowd of long-lenses would appear. Since that time, the number of local breeding pairs has increased greatly. I am aware of 6 nests within an hour of [his home], and I am sure there are more.” Brooks said he now also sees many juveniles and sub-adults, as well as more food sources.
Finally he can say with confidence, “The future for bald eagles is exciting!”