From Endangered to Recovered: A Timeline of the Bald Eagle’s Journey

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is no longer an endangered species but still faces threats. America’s national bird has been the target of persecution and hunting which led to population declines. Such population declines prompted the enactment of some of North America’s earliest and most thorough conservation laws.

This article lists the sequence of events the bald eagle has gone through to enter the 21st Century in a better shape than the previous one. It was not a smooth ride by any stretch of the imagination, and the struggle continued.

A Timeline of the bald eagle’s journey

Honored as a symbol of bravery and mystical powers, the bald eagle has a long history of interactions with people of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. 

Adult bald eagle eating a chicken part. Bald eagles generally feed on finch but are opportunistic. Domestic chickens are easy prey. Photo: John Carrel.

The 1800s. Beginning of the bald eagle population decline

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the 1800s mark the beginning of the bald eagle population decline.

Bald eagles acquired the reputation of being a threat to lambs, chickens, goats, and other domestic livestock. The bald eagle feeds mostly on fish and carrion, but it is opportunistic and will take waterfowl, injured birds, and small mammals that are easy to catch. Free-ranging farm chickens became a target for some bald eagles.

The bald eagle became a target of persecution. Professional hunters were offered bounties for bald eagle carcasses, and sports hunters were encouraged to shoot them.

The 1870s. Bird feather fashion craze 

Although not directly related to bald eagles, the indiscriminate killing of wading birds for the feather trade prompted a reaction from the environmental and naturalist communities that ultimately resulted in the passing of bird protection laws. 

Early in the 1870s, the United States was recovering from the civil war. The idea of decorating women’s hats with fancy bird plumes met peace and prosperity—the fancier the hat, the higher status of the person wearing it. 

Entire wading bird rookeries, particularly those near cities, were annihilated. Hunters had to venture to remote areas to reach new rookeries. By 1886, as many as five million egrets, herons, and spoonbills were hunted, mostly in Florida. 

By the 1890 and early 1900s, the bird feathers demand grew as the hat-with-bird feathers fashion spread to European countries.

1900. Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is one of America’s earliest conservation laws. Congress passed the Lacey Act to prohibit the possession, transportation, and trade of illegally taken fish and wildlife and their parts. The Lacey Act is regarded as the first law that extended some protection to bald eagles.

1916. Migratory Bird Treaty

It constitutes the first treaty between the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) signed to protect migratory birds from overhunting.

1918. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act

The international treaty of 1916 was broad and lacked specific protection measures. As the overhunting of wading birds continued, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was enacted in 1918. A relatively short and simple law, the MBTA was specific in prohibiting the take of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Take” in this context is defined as killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transporting migratory birds.

What are migratory birds? 

A migratory bird migrates or moves from one region to another. Under the law, a migratory bird is any bird species native to North America. Introduced species such as house sparrows and European starlings are not native, therefore, not protected by law. 

All native North American birds are protected by law, including the bald eagle. However, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was broadly regarded as legislation passed to protect wading birds hunted for the feather trade.

1940. Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act

The bald eagle continued to be persecuted even with the MBTA in place. More focused legislation was necessary to protect large eagles. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was enacted in 1940 and expanded protection to prohibit the killing or possession of eggs, feathers, and nest destruction of bald and golden eagles. 

The 1940s. Appearance of DDT

The widespread use of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) started in North America in the mid-1940s. DDT was the first of the modern synthetic insecticides synthesized in 1874 and promoted as an insecticide by 1939. DDT was effectively used to control the spread of mosquito-transmitted malaria. By 1945 DDT was introduced and widely used in the United States to control mosquitoes and agricultural pests. 

1945 through 1963. The steep decline of the bald eagle population

DDT caused female bald eagles to lay extremely thin-shelled eggs that broke with only the incubating parents’ gentle pressure. By the year 1963, and after massive nest failure during the next 18 years after DDT’s introduction to the U.S., the eagle population plummeted to only 487 pairs in the lower 48 states.  

1966. Endangered Species Preservation Act

DDT affected bald eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons, hawks, and other bird species. In response to the ongoing crisis, congress called for an international effort to conserve endangered species and passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. This act included the possibility of allowing the listing of species to grant specific but limited protection. Some bald eagle populations were listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. This Act also authorized the federal government to acquire land as a habitat for endangered species. 

1969 Amendment: Congress amended the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 to include the prohibition of the commercialization, importation, and sale of non-native already endangered species in the United States. An additional amendment to the Act changed its title to the Endangered Species Conservation Act.

1970: The peregrine falcon population continued decreasing at an alarming rate and was listed as endangered. DDT had a similar effect on the peregrine falcon’s eggshells. Much like the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon’s population plummeted due to massive nest failure. 

1972. Banning of DDT

After pressure on congress from the scientific and environmental movements in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency bans DDT. The main reason for such a decision was to prevent the potential negative impacts of DDT on people. The effect of DDT on the bald eagle and peregrine falcons was compelling enough to ban the use of DDT. 

1973. Enactment of the Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act (Act)  is arguably the most effective conservation law created to protect threatened and endangered species and their habitats in the U.S. The Act supersedes earlier endangered species acts and broadens protection for listed species by the U.S. as threatened or endangered. At this point, only the bald eagle populations deemed under major threat were protected by law. 

1978 Amendment. After persistent petitions from environmental groups and the community, the Act is amended to include bald eagles in all 48 states. Bald eagle populations in Alaska were not affected by DDT; therefore, they were not included under the Act. The amendment of 1978 went beyond the Act of 1973 in expanding the protection of the bald eagle nesting habitat, the nests and nest trees, and the protection of bald eagle nests from human disturbances.  

1999. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed delisting the bald eagle. 

The Endangered Species Act established recovery goals that were met years before 1999. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that the bald eagle’s threats were under control. The eagle had a healthy population size, recruitment rates, and stability of habitat quality and quantity. Recovery goals continued to be met consistently over subsequent years in all regions. Therefore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the bald eagle in all lower 48 states.

What does the delisting of the bald eagle mean?

Delisting the bald eagle means removing it from the Federal list of threatened and endangered species. A condition for delisting was that the bald eagle has recovered to the point that it no longer needs the Endangered Species Act’s protection.

2007. Delisting of the bald eagle from the Endangered Species Act. 

With population numbers still rising since the 1999 proposal for delisting, the bald eagle has been officially declared a recovered species and removed from the list of threatened and endangered species. The recovery was not as evident in the southwestern bald eagle population, which was later listed as threatened.

The bald eagle’s recovery from the brink of extinction was truly one of the most remarkable national and international conservation achievements. 

What happens after the bald eagle is delisted?

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 stipulates that any threatened or endangered species proposed for delisting must have a 5-year monitoring plan to be conducted for as many years after delisting. 

The bald eagle’s monitoring plan consisted of conducting annual aerial surveys of all known nesting territories. To measure annual productivity, monitors selected a subset of nests to record the number of eggs laid, the number of eggs hatchet, and the number of eaglets that fledge the nest.

Monitoring results indicated that the bald eagle populations surveyed in the lower 48 states continued to grow. Likewise, nest productivity has kept a healthy level since the delisting of the eagle. 

2019. What is the bald eagle’s current conservation status?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the bald eagle as a “species of least concern.” The “least concern” category includes species that, after evaluating threats, are not the focus of species conservation.

Five years after delisting, the bald eagle population grew and maintained steady productivity in the lower 48 states. 

Nationwide data on the bald eagle’s population status is not currently available. However, a local long-term bald eagle monitoring study indicates that the bald eagle population continues to grow.

The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University have conducted annual surveys of nesting eagles along the James River. The first survey in the 1950s yielded 23 nesting pairs. The 2019 survey yielded 302 pairs, an increment of 279 pairs or 1,213% since the 1950s. 

The Chesapeake Bay and James River support one of America’s densest bald eagle populations. However, bald eagle populations elsewhere are likely to have experienced relatively similar increments. 

Graph showing the increment in the number of breeding bald eagle pairs over approximately 64 years in the James River. Graph: Courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology.

The bald eagle is still protected by law after delisting

The bald eagle is no longer listed under the Endangered Species Act, which granted the most comprehensive protection. However, the bald eagle has not been removed from other acts that listed the eagle before its listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The bald eagle is still listed and protected by several federal, state, and municipal laws. Federal laws that protect the bald eagle, its feathers, other body parts, nests, nest trees, and roosts include the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act. 

It is important to note that there are authorization permits to possess feathers and other bald eagle parts. Permits are also available to take eagles, nests, nest trees, and roost sites incidentally to otherwise legal activities.  

Bald eagles that are likely to have died from lead poisoning. Photo: USFW.

Do bald eagles still face threats?

The bald eagle’s incredible journey back from the brink of extinction has been remarkable. However, threats to the eagle persist and are likely to stay. 

  • Lead poisoning: Lead poisoning is a widespread bird problem in North America. Although bald eagles feed mostly on fish, they are opportunistic and eat carrion when this is available. Eagles consume carcasses of game animals shot but not recovered by hunters or gut piles left behind. Vultures, crows, bald eagles, and other scavengers ingest fragments of lead ammunition mixed with the meat. Depending on the amount of lead ingested, a bald eagle can get mildly sick or die from lead poisoning. The University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center estimated that between 21% to 25% of sick eagles treated at the center were found to have lead in their blood at toxic levels. 
  • Electrocution: Electrocution is one of the leading causes of bald eagle dead. Electrocution occurs when a bird accidentally forms a circuit by touching two power lines with its wings simultaneously. 
  • Collision with power lines; Bald eagles and other raptors often collide with power lines during windy conditions and times of low visibility. Eagles seldom die from the impact but more often break one or two wings, fall to the ground and die of starvation. 
  • Collision with wind turbines: As we move away from the reliance on non-renewable energy, wind and solar farm become more prevalent. It is still poorly understood how often eagles, hawks, and other birds hit moving wind turbines during the daytime. It appears that birds in flight do not expect to run into any object or do not perceive a moving blade’s danger. The Wildlife Society Bulletin estimates that wind turbines annually kill as many as 573,000 birds in the U.S., and 83,000 are birds of prey, including bald and golden eagles.