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Photo by Tom Grey

Going Bald

By Bill Pelletier, November 2016


One of the great stories of species recovery has been the reintroduction of Bald Eagles here in California. The number of Bald Eagles in our state has increased steadily since the 1980’s as the species continues to recover from DDT poisoning. Over the last ten years we have watched the population go from zero to healthy in Santa Clara County. One might think that the recovery of Bald Eagles in the Bay Area originated from the north, since Alaska holds the vast majority of the Bald Eagle population, but I found out differently.

Bald Eagle flying over Arastradero © Tom Grey 2016


When I saw a pair of Bald Eagles in San Diego County this spring it made me question where these birds originated and how we now have successful nesting pairs here in Santa Clara county. It turns out that the Condor Recovery Project, based in Big Sur, has released over seventy young Bald Eagles since 1986, as a learning tool for their efforts with the Condors. Bald Eagle nesting sites have steadily spread out across the state from the central coast, leading to the first successful breeding pair in Santa Clara County in 2007. Today we are witnessing a steady increase in number of nesting pairs in Santa Clara County, including Calaveras Reservoir, Lexington Reservoir, Felt Lake, Calero Resevoir, San Felipe, Coyote and Anderson Lake. It was a surprise to me that our local population actually came up from the south, thanks to reintroduction of young eagles by Ventana Wildlife Society, instead of spreading down from greater populations in the north. Alaska is home to around 70,000 Bald Eagles, which is about half of the world’s total population. According to recent statistics, California has about 200 nesting pairs, Oregon 470, and Washington 848. Even with this local proliferation, I still only see a few each month.


The Bald Eagle was made our national bird in 1782. American lore holds that persistent alarm calls from Bald Eagles flying over a spirited battle early in the Revolutionary War inspired the Patriot troops in their fight for freedom. The darkest days for our national bird were in 1963 when there were only 487 breeding pairs left in the lower 48 states due to DDT poisoning and habitat destruction. Today there are about 10,000 nesting pairs in the contiguous United States, with a rapidly increasing local population.

Juvenile Bald Eagle flying over Santa Clara county © Tom Grey 2016


Bald Eagles mate for life and build a huge nest (or aerie) in the same place each year, measuring up to thirteen feet deep. Instead of tearing down the old nest, like an Osprey, Bald Eagles will just continue to pile more sticks on top of the old nest, making for some incredible structures. Other bird species will often build their nests right into the side of a Bald Eagle nest.  The fact that we are even talking about Bald Eagles is nothing short of a miracle. We would like to express our gratitude to the folks at Ventana Wildlife Society who successfully re-introduced young Bald Eagles into the wild.