Vail Daily column: Bald is beautiful in Eagle County
Vail, CO Colorado
I don’t know if you’ve noticed how many things around here carry the “eagle” moniker, but given the popularity of the word, the bird is probably not far off. Legend tells that the Eagle River was named by the Utes who said there were as many branches of the river as there are tail feathers on an eagle. Our hockey team, our county, and quite a few businesses in the area also seem to appreciate the association with eagles. That being said, you might wonder when we’re likely to see these namesake birds, and how they get by as winter approaches.
The bald eagle, or Haliaeetus leucocephalus (meaning sea eagle, white head) lives exclusively on the North American continent and was named the U.S. national bird in 1782 winning out over Ben Franklin’s preference, the wild turkey. The majority of Colorado’s bald eagles actually come south to the area as “snowbirds” in late October, staying through March. The best places to see bald eagles are near tree-lined rivers, lakes and reservoirs, particularly in areas that stay ice-free for a good part of the winter, as they commonly eat fish. Juveniles (young under four years lacking the distinctive white plumage of breeding adults) might stay year-round, but most of the adults will return to Alaska and Canada to breed in the spring. Ask any of the paragliders around here (many of which take off from the Golden Eagle run at Beaver Creek Ski Resort) what the attraction is for flyers of any species, and they’ll tell you about the great thermal updrafts that can be caught when the sun hits the mountains. And what a view!
In winter, eagles often roost communally in large trees for warmth and protection. Watch for them carrying branches and starting false nests in early spring. While they’re unlikely to actually nest here, this display is thought to be a form of pair bonding for the breeding season to come. Up to 120 bald eagle pairs nest in the state, and you can catch one on webcam from the Fort St. Vrain power station in Platteville, from February through May (http://birdcam.xcelenergy.com/eagle.html). Living 20-30 years, bald eagles mate “till death do us part.” Nesting sites, usually tall trees with very strong branches, are often used year after year as they build large platform nests weighing up to two tons.
With eyesight four times better than ours, eagles can zero in from great heights to catch their prey off-guard, and can lift up to 4 pounds with their talons. In addition to fish (self-caught or stolen from other birds), bald eagles also cull sick and injured waterfowl, muskrats, squirrels, rabbits and prairie dogs. They are also known to eat carrion and road-killed animals, filling an important ecosystem niche. With a wingspan of 72 to 90 inches, and weighing between 9 and 14 pounds (females are larger), they are easily identified as one of the largest birds in the sky.
In 1967, the bald eagle was listed as federally endangered in most states. It was downlisted from endangered to threatened in 1995, and removed from the threatened and endangered list entirely on June 28, 2007. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are an estimated 9,789 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states today, up from an all-time low of 417 pairs in 1963. So next time you ride up the Eagle Bahn gondola, keep your eyes open, like an eagle! You might catch a glimpse of a national icon and conservation success story.
For more general information on the bald eagle in Colorado, visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife (http://wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/Profiles/Birds/Pages/baldeagle.aspx).
Emerald Gustowt is a volunteer with Walking Mountains Science Center, with a background in avian rehabilitation. A highlight of her first winter here was watching a bald eagle fly over the Eagle River in the town of Eagle.