When Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky in Louisville got its first eagle around 1995, such a thing was “exciting and unheard of.”
The eagle was on his first migration, having been tagged in Michigan, and was shot in Eastern Kentucky. A wing frozen into place would keep him from ever flying again.
It was five years before the educational and rehabilitation organization got another eagle.
Now, Raptor Rehab founder and executive director Eileen Wicker said it’s not uncommon to have five eagles come through the center every year.
“They’ve made a comeback and a half,” she said. “We didn’t use to see nesting eagles anywhere. And now, we’ve got them right here in Jefferson County.”
The comeback is statewide. In 1986, Kentucky had only one eagle nest. This year it had 187, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Eagle populations in Kentucky are growing rapidly thanks to deliberate hacking — the release of young eagles into the wild — over the past 33 years. Now, hacking isn’t necessary. Eagles are reproducing on their own at a sustainable rate.
Kate Slankard, an avian biologist in the nongame branch for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, called the population uptick a “fantastic recovery” and “a good example of how the Endangered Species Act can work to recover a species.”
What to know: The eagle population in Kentucky is on the rise. Here’s what to know about them
This year, Slankard said surveyors found 19 new territories — areas where eagles haven’t been recorded before — in eastern and central Kentucky. It’s the latest in a series of successes eagles have had in the state.
When Kentucky’s lone nest was recorded in Ballard County in Western Kentucky in 1986, it was the first known nest in the Bluegrass State since the 1960s. Before that, eagles had been declining rapidly since the the mid-1900s and the bald eagle disappeared as a breeding bird in the 1960s.
Slankard said the decline was due to widespread use of a pesticide called DDT, which was developed in the 1940s to combat malaria, typhus and the other insect-borne human diseases.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began to crack down on DDT use because of its toxic side effects. In 1972, the EPA banned DDT based on its “adverse environmental effects, such as those to wildlife as well as its potential human health risks.”
One of the dangers DDT caused was eggshell thinning, Slankard said, which hindered bald eagle reproduction.
When DDT was outlawed in the 1970s, bald eagles again were able to successfully reproduce and start regaining a sustainable population.
During the 1980s and ’90s, nationwide hacking tried to give eagle populations a boost.
“Bald eagles have experienced a great comeback in Kentucky,” thanks to careful planning and monitoring for decades, Slankard said.
Julie, a rescued bald eagle, was released at George Rogers Clark Homesite in Clarksville, Indiana, on Jan. 22, 2019.
Nikki Boliaux, Louisville Courier Journal
Now Kentucky Fish and Wildlife aerially surveys the state’s eagle population each March west of Frankfort. Areas in Eastern Kentucky are surveyed from the ground in late winter.
Those surveys show that eagle populations have grown from that one nest in 1986 to six in 1990, 23 in 2000, 84 in 2010, 164 in 2017 and 187 in 2019 — more than doubling each decade.
Some of the most populated areas in Kentucky are in Western Kentucky, near Land Between the Lakes and Lake Cumberland, according to data from Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. That may be because eagles like to nest near large bodies of water, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The magic that envelopes the American bird hasn’t declined with the eagle’s comeback. Wicker said people who come through Raptor Rehab stare at its resident eagle, Spirit, 26, “like she’s the second coming.”
People are “impressed and mystified,” Wicker said, and the fascination seeps over into the staff.
Spirit is “just gorgeous” and “behaves herself like a queen,” Wicker said, adding that she could stare at the bird for hours, studying every detail of every feather.
The bald eagle magic never dies.
Background: Once endangered, bald eagles flourishing again
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