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Decline in bald eagle’s live birth rate likely due to heavy rain this year, state reports

bald eagle

Georgia's bald eagle population has produced fewer than average numbers of eaglets this year in a dip the state attributed to heavy rainfall in early 2020. File/Credit: fws.gov

By David Pendered

Georgia’s bald eagles are off their usual rates of reproduction in North Georgia this year, according to a new report from the state. Georgia wildlife managers attribute the dip to heavy rains recorded through March.

bald eagle

Georgia’s bald eagle population has produced fewer than average numbers of eaglets this year in a dip the state attributed to heavy rainfall in early 2020. File/Credit: fws.gov

The dip in the live birth rate of the state and federally protected species does not represent a cause for concern about the ongoing comeback of the national symbol, Bob Sargent, a program manager with the Wildlife Conservation Section of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement:

  • “The overall productivity trend for bald eagles nests in Georgia continues to look healthy.”

This year’s survey shows an estimated 126 baby birds took their first flight from one of the 82 successful nests that were identified. This rate of 1.5 eaglets produced per nest matches the long-term average. However, the percentage of successful nests was lower than average in the northern part of the state, the survey showed.

Sargent said the year’s unusually heavy rainfall likely had a negative impact on the bald eagle’s reproductive patterns.

Unseasonable rain can prompt eagles to postpone nesting, Sergent said. High water levels in creeks and streams can lower the birds’ ability to catch fish. Wet weather, combined with Georgia’s typical cold snaps at the start of the year, can chill eggs and the baby eaglets, according to Sergent.

A total of 26 inches of rain fell over metro Atlanta in January, February and March, according to a report from the National Weather Service.

The average rainfall during the three-month period is 13.7 inches, according to the same NWS report. That’s for a 30-year average.

The helicopter survey doesn’t seek to count every nest in the state, or survey the entire state.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s work is credited with aiding the recovery of the bald eagle. In this photo, Carson and wildlife artist Bob Hines looked for specimens in the Florida Keys in about 1955. Hines drew illustrations that appeared in Carson’s third book, ‘The Edge of the Sea.’ File/Credit: USFWS National Digital Library

Instead, Sargent conducts aerial surveys by helicopter flights conducted in January, March and early April. This year, Sargent counted 117 territories where the eagle nests were observed in three regions of the state. The regions include Georgia six coastal counties; a portion of east Georgia bounded, in general, by interstates 16 and 85, and the border with South Carolina; and the counties north of Atlanta. This year’s count also includes seven nests that were spotted by volunteers or other DNR staff members.

Georgia closely monitors the state’s population of bald eagles as part of its State Wildlife Action Plan. The birds’ resurgence in the state matches its recovery in other parts of the nation.

In 1967, the bald eagle population once was so decimated, all over the United States, that the bird was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. Here’s a snippet from a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that characterizes the near eradication of the bird from this country:

  • “Wildlife experts estimate that as many as 100,000 bald eagle pairs nested in the lower 48 states when the bird was adopted by Congress in 1787 as our national emblem. Since that time, the bald eagle has suffered from habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and contamination of its food, most notably due to the pesticide DDT. By 1963, biologists counted only 417 bald eagle nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.”

The bald eagle was delisted in 2007 across its range in the U.S., except for the Sonoran Desert population in Arizona, according to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The population rebounded as DDT was banned, following concerns raised by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, and efforts to protect the birds’ habitat.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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