Catching up with Montana’s bald eagles

In 1978, there were only 12 known nesting pairs of bald eagles in Montana. By 2014, that number had increased to more than 700 pairs. This amazing recovery, thanks to the ban on DDT and actions taken under the Endangered Species Act, is the subject of “The Eagles Have Landed,” my article in the November-December 2017 issue of Montana Outdoors Magazine. Kate Davis of Raptors of the Rockies took the stunning photographs that accompany the story.

While researching bald eagles, I watched for them in their usual haunts, and I spotted a fair number of nests in river valleys before the cottonwoods leafed out. But I also saw bald eagles in a few more unexpected places:

  • Soaring over Walmart in Missoula, next to the Clark Fork River.
  • Flapping over the parking lot at my kids’ school, while being harassed by a raven.
  • Attending a high school track meet. An adult and an immature bald eagle perched in nearby trees, hunting rodents in a field. Later, the adult circled repeatedly over the track as boys set up for the 1600m relay.
  • Flying low over my yard during high water. With tough fishing on the river a mile away, the eagle may have been looking for more prey options. (My three hens appeared to get a good adrenaline rush out of this flyover, but were unharmed.)

Sometimes I even saw eagles while driving somewhere to look for eagles. The message in all this for me? The eagles are back.

Yet even though overall bald eagle numbers are encouraging, we should be careful not to take the species for granted. As zoologist Willard Van Name said, “The time to save a species is while it is still common.” Bald eagles remain vulnerable to everything that got us in trouble in the first place, including habitat loss, nest disturbance, and poisoning by environmental contaminants.

One more note about Montana’s bald eagles . . . Not all the birds you see are nesters. Some are “floaters,” immature birds or others that haven’t yet established a nesting territory (my track meet birds probably fit this category). Others are migrating birds passing through Montana on their way to somewhere else. And still others are Canadian birds here to spend the winter in milder conditions. I look forward to seeing these winter migrants soon.