For several different reasons, they are also one of my personal favorites. First, they are beautiful birds and probably the most photogenic animals at the zoo. We have one male and one female. The female, the larger of the pair, is named Claire, after the previous Queens borough president, Claire Schulman; a longtime supporter of WCS’s Queens Zoo. For many years, she worked to help us locate our first eagle for exhibition. The male eagle is named Mel, after Claire Schulman’s husband, Dr. Mel Schulman.
Both of these eagles are birds that were accidentally injured in the wild. Claire had a collision with a jet in Alaska, and Mel broke his shoulder as a young eaglet when the tree in which he was nesting fell over in a storm. Both birds are unable to fly and would not be able to survive in the wild on their own. The Queens Zoo is an excellent option for these birds.
The other reason I really like the eagle exhibit is because it allows us to talk about a conservation success story.
Bald eagles are found throughout the United States from Alaska to Mexico, from the Pacific Northwest, south to Florida and east to New Mexico. They eat fish, small animals, and occasionally carrion (animal carcasses). The name “bald eagle” references the white heads of adult eagles. (It takes about five years before the brown feathers around their heads are replaced by white ones.)
In the 1960s, bald eagle populations were very low in the contiguous United States. Hunting and pollution - pesticides in particular - were killing off bald eagles and preventing the survival of new eagle chicks.
Bald eagles first received federal protection in 1967 under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which made it illegal to hunt, collect or harass eagles, and classified the bald eagle as an endangered species. With these protections, and with the curtailment of pesticide pollution into the waterways of the United States, the bald eagle has been making a steady come back.
In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upgraded the status of bald eagles in the lower 48 states from “endangered” to the less urgent status of “threatened.” In 2007, the American bald eagle was taken off the Endangered Species List, but it is still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Today, eagles can be seen in increasing numbers throughout large parts of the United States. In winter, eagles are often found around the major waterways in the New York area, including the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound. On a recent visit this past winter to a Westchester reservoir, I counted 12 eagles roosting within 50 yards of each other. Bald eagles have clearly made a comeback.
So the American bald eagle is an excellent example of our ability to make a positive change for animals. People often think that endangered species are on a one-way trip to extinction, but the story of the bald eagle teaches us that fate of endangered species is not yet written, and that extinction does not have to be the final word if we work to change it. And that’s not a bad lesson to learn at the zoo, or anywhere else.
Scott Silver is the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo.