PORTLAND, Maine – The eagle has landed — on chickens and rare birds with claws, ready.
The resurgence of the bald eagle is one of America’s greatest conservation success stories. They are so strong that in some areas they are interfering with the efforts to preserve more in danger species, such as divers and cormorants, biologists say. And their proliferation leads to encounters on dairy farms that are sometimes bad — and illegal — for the eagles.
Federal protection mean farmers can do little to keep them away, said Ken Klippen, a poultry scientist and former farmer who, at the head of the National Association of Egg Farmers.
“It is a completely protected bird. If you have foxes, coyotes, raccoons, a farmer can do something about that,” he said. “But if it is a bald eagle? His hands are tied.”
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has examined a case in which an eagle was shot and killed in the East Penn Township area in 2015. In Steuben County, New York, a sheep farmer and two other people were accused of the poisoning of carcasses to kill eagles who threatened lambs. And authorities investigated suspicious death of 18 bald eagles in Maryland and Delaware last year.
Bald eagles were chosen as an American symbol in 1782, and was a strong decrease in the beginning and middle of the 20th century, pushed to the brink of extinction by pesticides, loss of habitat and indiscriminate hunting.
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A 1930 issue of Popular Science explained that the birds died so much that it was possible, they would soon “be seen only on the coins and the coat of arms of the United States, unless drastic measures” she has saved.
Such action came in the form of federal protections, including the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prevents almost everyone from so much as disturbing the birds, and still stands today. The eagles recovered so much that they were removed from the endangered species list in 2007.
Today, Audubon Society bird counts show their numbers are climbing, and scientists with the society say they will probably continue to do so. Counters approximately 30,000 of them in 2015, more than double the 1995 count. They live in every state but Hawaii.
In Maine, where the number of breeding pairs of cormorants is small and the efforts to rescue them are underway, the bald eagles are a problem, said Chris DeSorbo, director of the raptor program at the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland.
Cormorants are seabirds that are widely distributed throughout the world, but North America has only a few breeding colonies from Maine to Greenland, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Common loons, decimated by hunting, is also sometimes the victim of eagles and are the subject of repopulation efforts in New England and elsewhere.
“Eagles are very opportunistic predators. They are going to try to take advantage of an easy meal where they can,” DeSorbo said. “In this case, I think sea-bird colonies may represent a low-risk food source for them.”
In other areas, the eagles, assuming a role that they played centuries ago — agriculture-pest. And it is not only chickens that they get.
Lee Straw, a Maine farmer who raises sheep on an island, said his weaker lambs will sometimes fall prey to the eagles.
“There is nothing you can do,” Straw said. “It is survival of the fittest.”
Such predation is to be expected since bald eagles are apex predators, said Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. The service not as a problem, but rather an indication of the species’ success in the reconstruction.
“Yes, eagles are having an effect on other species of wild animals,” he said. “But that is of course. Predation such as that probably occurred here hundreds of years ago.”
The birds continue to come back for the sake of the protection of wetlands, the increase of the quality of the water and afforestation of agricultural land, said Geoff LeBaron, a Massachusetts ornithologist and the director of the Audubon Society’s annual christmas bird count event. They have not yet reached the point where overpopulation is a legitimate concern, ” he said.
“At some point will reach capacity,” he said. “But I think that there is much room for more eagles.”