Forty years ago in our area, the sight of a bald eagle was a rare thing indeed. How rare were bald eagles then? One was lucky to see one of the birds once a year. I specifically recall watching a bald eagle emerge from the thick veil of a December snowstorm. It flew above a woods past me in falling snow that was so thick you could hear it hitting the ground. The bird coursed through the wall of snowflakes as I struggled to keep the bird in sight with my binoculars. Then it faded into the distance. That was the only eagle I’d seen that year. Or any of the previous years. In thirty years of birding, it was probably only the 30th eagle I’d ever seen.
But that bird perhaps signaled that the species was not done yet. Eagle populations had plummeted in the late 1960s and early 70s. Chemical pollution from the pesticide DDT accumulated in eagles at the top of the food chain. In a manmade reversal of evolutionary impact, those chemicals undercut the breeding viability of the species by thinning their eggshells to the point where the simple act of brooding them would break the shells.
The same thing happened to other birds of prey such as peregrine falcons, a species that teetered on extinction in the lower 48 states. Raptor restoration projects kept these species going, and when the government finally banned the use of DDT, it took time for the effects to thin out. As decades passed, breeding populations of bald eagles and peregrine falcons slowly rebounded. DDT had to filter out of the environment so that it would cease moving up the food chain where bigger creatures collected it in their systems.
Now both species are doing much better. Environmental laws have also cleaned up rivers where eagles fish and where peregrines chase down ducks, shorebirds and other prey species. The protection of these birds is never finished, and the current administration is gutting environmental laws right and left, so we’ll have to see what transpires for the bird that serves as our national symbol.
But right now, there are healthy, vibrant populations of bald eagles breeding in Illinois and other states. That’s the sign of hard work by the environmental movement to keep shortsighted, selfish politicians from handing over the environment and yes, human health to profit-minded polluters of all kinds. That’s not a biased political opinion. That’s a fact-based statement based on real, demonstrated results from policies instituted to protect the environment and our national symbol, the bald eagle.
As a lifelong birder, it has been interesting to see populations of these birds grow and hear such enthusiasm from people seeing eagles again. Some are struck by the size of the birds. Others find the white tail and head mesmerizing. Still others wonder why young eagles are all dark, and when do they get a white head and tail?
I more than happily explain that it takes bald eagles four full years to go through stages of moult that lead to adult plumage. Then they’re sexually mature and set up breeding. Both male and female birds have white heads and tail.
Now when I’m running along the Fox River on the system of bike trails that used to be railroad beds, it is quite common to look out over the river and see an eagle flying past. One morning in April a few years back, I was crossing the island at Fabyan Forest Preserve when I looked up to see five adult bald eagles perched in a dead tree. They startled as I came into view, and the sound of their wings as they unfurled into flight resembled the shaking of a giant bedsheet. Their reflections over the river were bright and clear.
We’ve come some distance in knowing what really harms the world in which we live. Yet there are something like 80,000 chemicals at work in industry, agriculture and other uses. Only a small percentage of them are effectively monitored and regulated. Some of that makes it into the human food chain. We don’t really know how that affects us.
According to the New York Times: Unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides, industrial chemicals do not have to be tested before they are put on the market. Under the law regulating chemicals, producers are only rarely required to provide the federal government with the information necessary to assess safety.
Cancer rates are certainly a concern to everyone, and disturbances in our systems from chemicals or heavy metals can collect in our bodies just like the DDT once undercut the health of bald eagles.
Of course, we also poison ourselves with so much sugar and processed foods, alcohol, tobacco and heavy fats. We’ve become psychosomatic eaters to come degree. All the stress of living in this world makes us crave foods that kick our chemical responses into high gear. It’s a wicked cycle. No one is safe from the reach of these cycles. That bright look in our eye can fade in a blink when cancer or some other affliction hits us.
So perhaps we need to learn a few things from the story of bald eagles in America. Perhaps we need to focus a bit less on the supposedly glorious aspects of what has made them a great population again and focus a bit more on the practical aspects of what poisoned them in the first place. There are more than one kind of toxic elements in this world. Some are chemical. Others are cultural. Social. Political. Religious.
We can’t just ban these like we once banned DDT. But we can learn to recognize where they come from, and how they operate. Racism and prejudice are toxic elements in our society. So is discrimination based on fear that leads to violence and the massive proliferation of guns. It’s a wicked cycle, and fear moves up the emotional food chain till it reaches the top, our politicians. And the cycle starts all over again.
Yes, our national symbol the bald eagle has much to teach us about ourselves. We just need to get past the jingoism to learn a damned thing about ourselves.
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