Editorial: Protect this majestic bird

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 5, 2007

As the federal government considers removing the bald eagle from the list of protected species, the wanton destruction of one of the majestic creatures near High Rock Lake drives home an important point: Just because the eagle’s numbers have recovered from the perilous lows of a few decades ago, no one should be complacent about their protection. Threats still remain, whether from mindless criminal acts or environmental pressures such as shrinking habitat.

The bald eagle recently found dead in Davidson County, near Churchland, had been shot in the head. This wasn’t only a disgusting act that destroyed a threatened species; it also desecrated a living example of our national symbol. This particular bird was an adolescent, probably about 2 years old, and had been banded, a sign that it could have survived a previous injury and been released from a rehabilitation center. It may have migrated from elsewhere or been hatched and fledged in a nest near High Rock or one of the other lakes in the Yadkin River chain. While bald eagles are rare in the area, they’re sometimes seen around lakes, rivers or marshland because the abundant fish can help feed eagle parents and their hungry young. Anyone who’s ever been fortunate enough to see an eagle in the wild, soaring on an updraft or folding its wings and plummeting down toward a shallow-feeding fish, will never forget the sight. While the eagle’s fierce profile may be its most distinguishing trait at rest, it’s a majestic bird in flight, a high-altitude Baryshnikov with speed and agility that belie its impressive size.

All told, wildlife experts believe the United States is home to about 4,000 bald eagles nesting pairs. That’s an encouraging recovery from the few hundred counted in the 1960s, but the population is likely to reach a plateau because of limited habitat. Along with habitat pressures, young eagles face other daunting obstacles on the way to adulthood, including disease, lack of food and harsh weather. Only about half of the eaglets born survive their first year.

While we humans can’t do much about some of the hardships eagles face, we can pay attention to what encroaching development does to their nesting sites, which ideally include broad swathes of forested land near lakes or rivers. We can work to improve the water quality of our lakes and streams, which benefits humans as well as wildlife. We can denounce human predation and vigorously prosecute anyone who willfully takes an eagle’s life, an act that will remain a serious crime under state and federal statutes, regardless of the eagle’s status as a federally threatened species. While bald eagles have gradually recovered from the threat of extinction, they’re a rare sight around Rowan and Davidson counties — and with this bird’s demise, a bald eagle sighting will be that much rarer.