Vail Daily column: Bald eagles represent faith in the human race
Growing up during the 1970s, protecting the rainforests and saving the bald eagles stand out as vibrant memories in my childhood. I remember going door to door selling cookies that were somehow going to buy back the rainforests. I don’t think I sold enough cookies, because the rainforests still seem to be in trouble. But I also remember the genuine pride in my teacher’s voice as she told us about the recently passed Endangered Species Act, and how it would help save species like the bald eagles from extinction. Today, more than 35 years after bald eagles were officially listed as endangered under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the species is one of only a few on the list who have made such a comeback as to be completely delisted. The bald eagle was downgraded to threatened in 1995, and completely removed from the federal list in 2007. Colorado followed suit and removed the birds from our state list of threatened and endangered species in 2009.
Colorado’s eagles are comprised of several distinct populations. At least 120 nests, representing breeding pairs, are currently known to exist in the state. Of these, some birds winter in the state, but many travel for the winter, even if it’s just from the mountain valleys down to the sunny Front Range. But it is during the winter that the real eagle watching season begins.
Somewhere between 400 and 1,000 bald eagles migrate from Alaska or Canada to spend the winters in the relatively warm and sunny clime of the Colorado Rockies. The lack of summer foliage also makes wintertime a great time to watch for eagles as they perch on exposed cottonwood limbs.
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On the whole, eagle migration patterns are very complex. Migration routes, timing, and behaviors all seem to be dependent on an eagle’s maturity, location, and the temperature. Juveniles typically migrate before the adults, and no one is really sure what cues they use to get where they’re going.
Some young eagles return to their birthplace to breed, while others seek out new terrain. Again, no one knows whether this is deliberate or whether the young birds simply make a wrong turn somewhere. Migration timing seems to be determined by availability of food; as lakes and streams freeze over, the eagles head off in search of open water. In some places, where food remains available year-round, eagles don’t migrate at all.
Living A Life of Ease
There’s something so majestic about bald eagles and I always consider myself lucky to have these great birds sharing my home. Living a life of ease as they soar about in search of carrion and road kill to supplement their diet of fish (self-caught or sometimes stolen from other birds), eagles have few predators (besides humans).
They build huge nests during the breeding seasons, but in the winter, they are more commonly seen roosting communally in large trees for warmth and protection. Look for them along the Eagle and Colorado River; they’re easy to spot if you’re watching.
Power Humans Wield
Beyond the hype as our national symbol, the bald eagle also represents hope, optimism and faith in the human race. The story of a bird that, in my lifetime, has gone from the brink of extinction to a place where its majestic silhouette is a common sight, offers a glimpse of the power we wield as humans. Initial carelessness and thoughtlessness, replaced by awareness and assumption of an awesome responsibility, and a species was restored. If we can do this, then there is much hope for what else the human race might be able to accomplish.
Jaymee Squires is director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. Ask her about her favorite places to watch for eagles around Eagle.