By Kevin Pugh, Wildlife Biologist
The bald eagle is majestic, powerful, our nation’s symbol, and now fairly common in Alabama. Yes, that’s right. The bald eagle can now be found on most of Alabama’s major waterways and lakes. From the Tennessee River to the Mobile Basin, from Eufaula to the Tombigbee River, the bald eagle is now a common sight.
Just 20 years ago, the bald eagle was seldom spotted in Alabama, except for a few migratory birds that would stay for the winter. These eagles would then return north to nest in the spring. Alabama lost all of its nesting eagles during the 1950s and 1960s when eagle numbers drastically declined.
In 1984, the decision was made by the Alabama Nongame Wildlife Program of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to attempt to restore Alabama’s nesting bald eagle population. This would not be easy because the eagles would have to be “hacked” in Alabama. Hacking is the process where juvenile eagles are forced to take their first flight from an area. They become imprinted on the area and then return when sexually mature to nest. From 1985-1991, wildlife biologists hacked or released 91 juveniles in the state. Now, 20 years later, we are monitoring 56 bald eagle nests with the number of nests expected to rise.
Thanks to the dedication of many wildlife biologists, conservationists and volunteers, bald eagle restoration can now be counted as one of the major wildlife management success stories. Bald eagle restoration is a great example of what can be accomplished with hard work, dedicated conservationists and adequate resources.
Milestones in Alabama’s Eagle Restoration
1984 – Decision made by Alabama Nongame Wildlife Program of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to attempt to restore Alabama’s nesting bald eagle population.
1985 - First juvenile eagles (4) were released (hacked) by the Nongame Wildlife Program at a Jackson County release site.
1986 - Ten juvenile eagles released in Jackson County.
1987 - The first confirmed nesting attempt by bald eagles in Alabama since 1949. It was not successful. The eagles were banded birds believed to be from a Tennessee release program. Twelve juvenile eagles were released in Jackson County.
1988 - One confirmed nest. The pair from 1987 tried again, but were unsuccessful. Seven juvenile eagles were released in Jackson County.
1989 - Two nests statewide, both unsuccessful. Two juvenile eagles released in Jackson County.
1990 - Four nests statewide, all unsuccessful. However, the first confirmed nesting attempt by eagles released in Jackson County occurred. Two additional juvenile eagles released in Jackson County.
1991 - Five nests statewide, two of which included the first successful nests by bald eagles in Alabama in 42 years. Each nest had one eaglet. In a “mega-hack,” 56 juvenile eagles released from four sites in southwestern Alabama.
1992 - Six nests statewide; three successful, including the first successful nest in the Tennessee Valley in 43 years.
1993 - Nine nests statewide, six successful. This year saw the first nest containing multiple eaglets (one nest had two eaglets).
1994-1998 - Over the next five years, nesting attempts stabilized before starting to rise again. There were 11 nests in 1994, 16 in 1995, 22 in 1997, and 23 in 1998.
1999 – The first Alabama triple clutch; 26 nests statewide. The bald eagle is proposed to be de-listed from the endangered species list in July 1999.
2000- First nest on the Conecuh River system.
2001 - First nest on Lake Martin and in northwest Alabama. Thirty-five nests statewide. The highest success rate to date--89 percent.
2002 - Forty-three confirmed nests statewide with 31 successful.
2003 - Forty-seven nests statewide with 30 successful. Mid-winter eagle count statewide showed 149 bald eagles wintering in Alabama.
2004 – Fifty-three nests statewide with 42 successful.
2005 – Fifty-six nests currently being monitored. At present, the count is still incomplete. Wildlife biologists are expecting the number of nests to increase and a high overwintering population.