The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Bald eagles fly with the Tennessee angels who helped save them from extinction. We must keep them on the wing.

Written by

Cooper Eagle 1BAmerican Eagle Foundation founder Al Cecere releases a rehabilitated bald eagle at Ijams Nature Center on Aug. 12, 2016. The foundation named her Summit in honor of UT Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summit. Photo by Chuck Cooper.

Is the bald eagle's remarkable comeback fading down the stretch?

(Part one in a series)

It was a damp morning in early spring 2005 when Paul James and I met Linda Claussen at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge along the French Broad River in east Knox County. Heavy rains had fallen through the night, but the clouds were beginning to break. As we walked down Kelly Lane toward the river the vocalized yearnings of thousands of chorus frogs could be heard singing from the soppy floodplain along the river. Spring was definitely here.

The refuge itself was the brainchild of Linda’s late husband, Pete. In the late 1990s, he formed the Seven Islands Foundation, a privately owned land conservancy, and began setting aside property to be protected and restored to a variety of natural habitats. Most of the acreage had recently been fescue pasture maintained for grazing livestock and hay production.

Seven Islands State Birding Park is now the refuge the Claussens imagined 20 years ago. What typically strikes the casual visitor is the overall lay of the land because the narrow roadway opens up to a dramatic sylvan panorama with the Great Smokies off in the distance. It’s an excellent place to view the valley, but in early 2005, we were there for more than just a tour of the idyllic property, Linda was enthused for another reason. Of course, being enthused was an everyday occurrence for her; but on this day, she had something truly remarkable to show us.

Perhaps the wide river or the pastoral remoteness of the location itself attracted the refuge’s newest residents, for we had only walked about 10 minutes down the paved rural roadway when I spotted the first white head. We were at least 300 yards away, but its form was unmistakable. An adult bald eagle was perched on a bare sycamore branch 40 or 50 feet above the swirling water. It was looking upstream over the rich bottom land, surveying its territory. The regal raptor was not alone, for behind it, high in another sycamore, was a classic stick nest as big as a household stove, except conical, like a funnel. A second eagle hunkered down in the nest, incubating.

Much to my companions’ surprise, I whooped with the zeal of an 8-year-old. As the crow flies, Seven Islands is slightly less than 12 miles northeast of my Chapman Ridge home, practically my backyard. The nascent refuge had proven the wisdom to the “Field of Dreams” adage: “If you build it, they will come.”

As our adventurous trio watched from our lofty vantage point, the first eagle took flight and circled over Steamboat Island to disappear to the west, downstream. A short time later it reappeared. Its 7-foot wingspan adroitly maneuvered through the tree’s uppermost branches and the eagle landed on the nest to deliver a midmorning meal to its mate. For a brief time, they were together exchanging eagle pleasantries and then the sovereign hunter took flight and disappeared downstream.

At the time I was writing my first book, "Natural Histories" and my editor at the University of Tennessee Press, Scot Danforth, wanted to end the book, which told the dark truth in so many places, on an upbeat, positive note. The recovery of bald eagles was just such an uplifting story.

And the natural history underpinning? The 2005 pair of Seven Islands eagles raised two fledglings and it was the first successful bald eagle nesting in the history of Knox County, Tennessee. Historically, the large raptor had only nested in West Tennessee, along the Mississippi River, Reelfoot Lake and at Land Between the Lakes.

With our help, eagles make a slow comeback

Seventy years ago, in the 1950s, the very symbol of the United States was virtually gone from eastern North America. Their decline was due to overhunting, habitat loss, general disrespect, and particularly the long-term buildup of pesticides in their bodies—most notably DDT.  

At their low ebb, it is estimated that only 800 bald eagles still survived. There were no successful nests in the Volunteer State between 1961 and 1983, a period of 22 years. With the protection of the precursor to the Endangered Species Act in 1967 and the banning of DDT in 1972 the magnificent raptor’s beleaguered population began to rebound. Eagles were returning to our skies, but they needed help.

Their Tennessee comeback was aided by hacking, a term used for decades by falconers. It’s a process where captive bred or human raised eaglets are taken to faux nests called hack towers, where they are eventually released to make their first flight.

“Tennessee wasn’t the first to hack young bald eagles, but it has now reintroduced more than any other state,” remarked the late Bob Hatcher in 2001. Hatcher was the nongame and endangered wildlife coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He was the moving force behind the initial release of bald eagles across our state. Between 1980 and 2004, a total of 294 eaglets were hacked at seven locations in Tennessee. Since Hatcher’s death, the American Eagle Foundation has continued the passion for eagle recovery.

The foundation was founded by Al Cecere. His life is a great example of how it is never too late to “find your calling.” Having absolutely no background in wildlife, Cecere recalls seeing an Associated Press photo of 20 dead eagles that had been shot by poachers. For him, it was that epiphany, a call to action. He began learning everything he could about eagles and other birds of prey. TWRA’s Hatcher became his mentor. Cecere became an international champion of bald eagles, meeting U.S. presidents and traveling with an eagle named Challenger to flyovers for sporting events.

Between 1992 and 2020, the Dollywood-affiliated American Eagle Foundation released 180 young bald eagles and 11 golden eagles into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. It is now estimated that the bald eagle population in North America has climbed to 100,000.

This is indeed a feel-good story. It is tempting to wrap it up in a happy ending and proudly put bald eagle recovery in a pretty package with a red ribbon and pat ourselves on the back.

But we cannot.

Hundreds of bald eagles are dying again.

(This will be addressed in the second installment of this series).

Stephen Lyn Bales is a natural historian and the author of three UT Press books: "Natural Histories," "Ghost Birds," and "Ephemeral by Nature." He's also a monthly speaker (via Zoom) for the UT Arboretum Society.

Thompson Bald Eagle

Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Published in News

Related items

  • Requiem for the Lord God Bird
    in News
    Movie footage from Louisiana, 1935 by Arthur Allen. Courtesy of Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
     

    The ivory-billed woodpecker is officially extinct, and it strikes a chord in Knoxville

    Clinging to a maple in the bayou, Jim Tanner finally had the rare nestling in his grasp. 

    He fitted it with a numbered leg band and placed the bird back in its hole high off the ground. 

    But true to its seldom-seen self, the juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker squirmed free and fluttered to the base of a giant maple tree in a southern Louisiana swamp owned at the time by the Singer Sewing Machine Co.

    The year was 1936, and Jim Tanner was in the midst of doctorate research at Cornell University funded by the Audubon Society as part of a push to prevent the pending extinctions of multiple bird species, including the California condor, roseate spoonbill, whooping crane and ivory-billed woodpecker. Eighty-five years later, the regal woodpecker would be the only one grounded for eternity.

    In the heat and rain of mucky, gassy bayous, Tanner compiled data on the range, population, habitat and prevalence of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He camped for weeks at a time in the swamps of the birds’ original range.

    On this day, his only goal was to band the bird but he rushed down the tree and picked up the agitated but uninjured woodpecker.

    He also wanted photographs.

    Tanner took advantage of the moment.

    He placed the bird upon the shoulder of an accompanying and accommodating game warden for 14 shots from his Leica.

    They were probably the first, and perhaps the last, photographs of a juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker photographed by Tanner in its natural habitat. He named the bird Sonny, and he was the only known member of the species to be banded with a number.

    The regal, smart, athletic bird, which peaceably flew over its small slice of Earth for some 10,000 years, was declared extinct last month by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Twenty-two other species also qualified for removal from the Endangered Species List — in the worst possible way.

    The ivory bill inhabited the swamps of the Deep South, far removed from Rocky Top, but old visages of the departed were found in Little Switzerland in South Knoxville. The work of Tanner, who would go on to complete a rich ecological research career at the University of Tennessee, has been memorialized by a talented East Tennessee science writer.

    And the Southern Appalachian region has other long-gone kinships with species that vanished from the Earth a long time ago. 

  • Lead is flying as bald eagles face ambush on road to full recovery
    in News

    Thompson Eagle lead poisoned 1This grounded bald eagle at a wildlife refuge in Missouri eventually succumbed to lead poisoning. Lead from bullets and shot are the latest threat to bald eagles, the recovery of which is an American conservation success story. Betty Thompson

    Once again bald eagles are in trouble: This time the threats are a deadly recipe of lead and neurotoxins.

    The recovery of America’s bald eagles is one of the greatest environmental success stories of the past 50 years. From an estimated overall population of about 800 at the depth of their decline, they have rebounded to about 100,000 today living near water in Alaska, Canada and all of the lower 48 states.

    Hellbender Press has covered the success story that brought our national symbol, the bald eagle, back from the brink of extinction.

    The cause of that long-ago calamity was ferreted out with the help of an early citizen-scientist, a retired Canadian banker living in Florida named Charles Broley, who became interested in eagles and obtained a permit to band eaglets. Between 1939 and 1946 he banded a total of 814 of them in the nest before they fledged.

    As the years passed Broley observed a population decline and initially thought habitat loss was to blame. But in an Audubon article he penned in 1958, Broley concluded, “I am firmly convinced that about 80 percent of the Florida bald eagles are sterile.”

    But why? Broley was the first to speculate that the use of organochlorine pesticides, most notably dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT for short, was somehow the cause; but he had no proof and didn’t know how the chemical compound actually affected adult eagles.

    Broley’s suspicions and others were brought to national attention by Rachel Carson in her landmark 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” DDT was outlawed in 1972 and the eagle population slowly began to recover.

    And today? Bald eagles still face problems — both old and new.

    The old one is lead poisoning.

  • Still no glimpses of the ghost bird
    in Air

    bales ivorybill hbThe red-cockaded woodpecker is vanishingly rare, but its true status in the wild is not known.   Courtesy Stephen Lyn Bales

    'Lord God Bird' of lore, a sad reminder of what we have lost

    We stood agape. Before us, on a white countertop as big as a ping pong table, lay 17 dead ivory-billed woodpeckers. They were museum specimens neatly arranged in two groups: nine males and eight females, all lined up like ears of corn in separate wooden trays. Each had a paper label attached to a leg with handwritten notation of when and where it had been collected; most seemed to date from the late 1800s. Being in the presence of so many rendered us reverently speechless.

    The Knoxville History Project’s Paul James and I were in the cellar of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History at the time. Surrounding us were row after row of 10-foot, pale-green metal cabinets, lockers with wooden drawers filled with museum specimens. In addition to the 17 Campephilus principalis organized in the wooden trays before us, there was also one lone male mounted on a log for display purposes. All eighteen are part of the more than 640,000 avian specimens housed at the museum, which is in the nation’s capital cattycornered to the Washington Monument.

    “We receive anywhere between one and 4,000 new specimens a year,” remarked the museum’s curator of birds at the time James Dean. “Many are donated by families that discover ‘grandfather’s collection’ stored in the attic.”   

    Call it fortuitous. When Paul arranged the meeting, the ivory-billed woodpecker was this country’s most ethereal bird; although not officially pronounced extinct it had last been documented in the swamps of Louisiana over 60 years ago. Contemporary field guides no longer include the ivorybill, America’s largest woodpecker, for they have been written off as being eliminated long ago. In the 1800s, when folks caught a fleeting glimpse of an ivory-bill they’d gasp, saying, “Lord God, what a bird,” or simply, “Lord God Bird!” So, how could this magnificent bird, black-and-white, crow-sized bird with a loud “kient, kient-kient, kient” vocalization go undetected in our modern world?