Soaring Again

There are more eagles in Monroe County today than there were 200 years ago during the early years of the French Town settlement.

“We’re seeing more bald eagles than the settlers would have seen,” said Gerry Wykes, a retired interpreter for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks and Frenchtown Township resident. Mr. Wykes remembers taking a class of students to a bald eagle’s nest in a woodlot near Swan Creek off Port Sunlight Rd. near Estral Beach in the late 1980s. “It was one of the first nests built in Monroe County at the time,” he recalled last week. “It got to be well known. The nest was so big, you could see it from” U.S. Turnpike. The fact the nest is still around today is a testament to the comeback the predator bird has made in the region in the past 25 years.

Thanks to a ban on the pesticide DDT, pollution-control measures and legislation, the bald eagle is no longer on the endangered and threatened species list as it was in the 1960s and ’70s. Instead, the national symbol for freedom and democracy is thriving along the Lake Erie shoreline and its numbers continue to grow rapidly.

“It’s amazing what conservation can do,” Mr. Wykes said. “That’s our national symbol. It’s one thing that most people are aware of and concerned about that it (won’t) go extinct. It scared everybody to the point where they said we can’t let it go.”

Almost extinct

Yet they almost did become extinct. A study of nests that existed from 1961 to 1987 showed no bald eagle young were produced in Michigan during that time. The eagle, which has been protected by federal laws from hunters since the early 1900s, saw its numbers drop to almost zero in Michigan. Mr. Wykes cited several reasons why their numbers decreased.

  • First, at one time in the 1900s, farmers shot them in their fields and many of the eagle eggs were collected and sold for money.
  • Thieves would take the eggs from their nests and blow the yoke out and decorate the shells, Mr. Wykes said.
  • The biggest reason they almost disappeared was the lack of laws to protect the birds, their food and habitat.

“The bottom fell out in the late 1950s when DDT was sprayed in fields and it got into the food chain when it drained into rivers and streams,” Mr. Wykes said. “DDT was a real nasty thing after World War II. It didn’t kill them, but had a big impact on their eggs.” Eagles eat both live and dead fish and ducks in the lakes and other dead animals. Eagles are at the end of the food chain. With the DDT chemical in their digestive systems, some eaglets were born with malformed beaks or their egg shells were “super thin,” he said. When the mother eagle sat on them, they broke, killing the young. “Around 1969, at the height of the DDT scare, only 38 percent of bald eagle nests were able to produce any young,” Mr. Wykes said. “The rest all failed.”

DDT was banned for most uses in 1972, but it has long-lasting effects. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other heavy metals used in Monroe’s paper mills and other industries also threatened the eagles and other natural predators like ospreys by seeping into their food chain.

Numbers Rise

Eventually, with new federal laws being enacted in the 1970s and ’80s to protect the eagles, the tide began to change and more eaglets survived. A Michigan bald eagle survey started in 1986 found 86 pairs of eagles nesting in the state. The large birds require a large body of water nearby like the western basin of Lake Erie to sustain nests. By 2011, their number had grown to 700 nesting pairs.

“That’s a very healthy population and a dramatic change from what had been,” he said. “All it took was preservation. The DDT ban and pollution-control measures made a difference.”

Employees for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitored eagles in the mid-1980s to gather data on the birds. They placed metal or plastic bands on the legs of the young and also took blood samples to check for body weight and to determine the amount of mercury and other pollution in the birds. Annual bird counts by organizations like the Erie Shores Birding Association also produced evidence of the eagles’ rebound. In the Christmas Bird Count last December, 83 bald eagles were found in the area of DTE’s Monroe Power Plant. The survey showed 46 adults plus 37 young birds with dark heads and that were younger than 5.

The survey also counted 46 red-tailed hawks and almost 40 Downy woodpeckers, another positive sign for the environment.

“Bob Pettit (a member of of the Erie Shores Birding Association) told me they saw so many eagles it was almost not eventful to find one, Mr. Wykes said. “That’s how far we’ve come.”

Around 1987, the first pair of eaglets produced in Wayne County in 100 years were found in Pointe Mouillee and banded by the FWS. That marked another breakthrough in the birds’ comeback, as food sources for the birds like Walleye and Perch began to rebound.

“They are a great feeder fish,” he said about the eagles. “The walleye and perch are important for their survival. There’s an important economic reason to keep them here” as well.

Work Not Done

But despite the rising number of eagles in the area, there remains some doubts about their future, Mr. Wykes said. Eaglets being sampled are still showing traces of PCBs in their system or some malformations are still being found, so there are still some dangers out there.

“We should be constantly vigilant,” he said. “We’re happy that they’re back, but the work isn’t done yet. Their presence is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. But like salamanders and fresh-water clams, they could soon disappear if pollution continues and their habitat is destroyed.”