Bald eagles fly south for warmer Christmas in Mississippi

There is no place like Mississippi for the holidays, especially if the sojourner happens to be a Bald Eagle. It may be a winter wonderland in the northern states, but when the ice and snow persist, large numbers of bald eagles head for the Magnolia State. Winter may not be your favorite season for outdoor activities, but when the eagles have landed it is time to bundle up, grab the binoculars and head for the nearest lake or wildlife refuge to see our majestic national bird.

Over the vociferous protestations of Benjamin Franklin, who lobbied tirelessly for the wild turkey, the bald eagle was declared the national bird in 1782. The image of the bald eagle now appears on the great seal of the United States and of Mississippi, on coins, flagstaffs and, of course, on the one-dollar bill.

Identification of the bald eagle in the field is not always simple. Naturally, any patriotic, red-blooded American could identify a mature bald eagle that was sitting perfectly still on a nearby branch, but sometimes these birds are not always so obliging. A mature bald eagle, one approximately 5 years old, will have a large brown body, a solid white head, gold beak and gold bare legs.

Immature bald eagles will not have the characteristic white heads or gold beaks. They will be completely dark brown and are often mistaken for large hawks. Bald eagles have a wingspan of seven to eight feet, and when they soar the wings are flat. A soaring bald eagle is often confused with a buzzard. Just remember that buzzards soar with upswept wings and eagles do not.

Lifetime partners

Bald eagles mate for life and begin nesting in Mississippi in late December. The eagles build a large aerie of sticks and twigs at least 40 or 50 feet high in the tops of large trees. Year after year, the eagles keep returning to the same nest but always do a little redecorating by adding more and more material. Many of these nests become quite mammoth in size. Usually two, large white oval eggs are laid. Both adult eagles help to incubate the eggs and rear the eaglets.

Just a few decades ago, the bald eagle was becoming increasingly rare, and by the 1960s this national symbol was in peril. With fewer than 500 nesting pairs, the bald eagle was disappearing from the lower 48 states. This dramatic decline was due primarily to the effects of DDT, a pesticide used to control mosquitoes, which affected the reproductive ability of not only eagles but of many other birds of prey. Because of the hazards of DDT combined with the loss of habitat, the bald eagle was doomed for extinction. By the 1950s, breeding bald eagles had disappeared from the state of Mississippi.

But in 1967 the bald eagle was placed on the endangered species list; DDT was banned in December of 1972; and the Environmental Protection Act was signed into law in 1973. As a result, the bald eagle, along with many other forms of wildlife, has rebounded.

Currently there are more than 7,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and in Mississippi many breeding pairs of bald eagles have been reported throughout the state. According to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, in 2005 there were 31 confirmed active eagle nests in the state of Mississippi and 42 chicks were fledged. This is such a success story, that the status of the bald eagle has been downgraded from endangered to threatened.

After a long hiatus, bald eagles have landed once again in Mississippi. The bald eagles will be home for Christmas. Welcome home.

The Earth Lady by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal Home & Garden section once a month.