The National Symbol, The Bald Eagle

Jul 4, 2018

Credit Joseph Cavanaugh

You may have noticed that the rotaries are choked with tentative, confused motorists, which must mean that July has occurred. And this year, the Bird Report falls squarely on Independence Day, that holiday that bottle-rockets us into the tourist season, so I feel more compelled than usual to address the most majestic of avian beasts, our national symbol, the Bald Eagle.


For years I’ve spoken about the possibility of nesting Bald Eagles on Cape Cod, who last nested here at the turn of the 20th century, but the big birds have been astoundingly coy about revealing their nesting secrets. So, we were left to speculate. “Maybe they are nesting at Mashpee Pond”, I’d say, or “we suspect they are nesting somewhere in the Brewster/Harwich area” was the best I could do. We had hints they might be nesting, mainly the presence of adults at some of these bigger local ponds during their late winter nesting period, and one case of a pair of eagles that occupied an Osprey nest, at least until the Ospreys came back and kicked them out in March. But no one found any actual nests with eggs and young – the smoking gun remained elusive.

At least until recently, when a visitor showed up at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary with that smoking gun. Less metaphorically speaking, it was a picture of an apparent Bald Eagle nest at a relatively obscure pond in the Brewster/Harwich area - not the one I was expecting. The nest was only visible from a boat, in keeping with eagles’ surprising ability to hide their massive nests from the prying eyes of people. One nest in Florida measured over 18 feet high, and a nest in Ohio used for 34 years was estimated to weight 2 metric tons. Nevertheless, they are brilliant at hiding their condo-sized nests in the tops of mature white pines or other large trees.

While Bald Eagles were removed from the Federal Endangered Species list in 2007, they are still listed as Threatened under the state Endangered Species Act, and are also protected by the Federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Since eagles were already protected from being killed or harassed under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, this Eagle-centric legislation essentially said, “we the people find these birds to be super cool and patriotic and thus deserving of more protection than other birds”. 

So, to protect this nest from too much disturbance, I’m not going to name the pond. I have to sheepishly admit that I haven’t been able to get out and confirm this nest, myself, what with a nestling of my own to look after at my house. But I expect other nests may already be out there, and there are things you can do to help confirm them, starting in mid-winter.

Eagles in Massachusetts can be on eggs in February, so seeing adults at that time is highly suggestive of breeding. Young Eagles take five years to attain the iconic adult plumage and begin breeding, so sightings of immatures don’t tell us much. June was always a classic time for juvenile Bald Eagles to make an appearance on the Cape, but that is too soon to see independent, wandering young from local nests - these youngsters were likely coming from nests as far away as Florida, where eagles nest much earlier. 

But if you see young eagles in the company of adults at a likely breeding pond, do let us know. Mass Wildlife is very interested in the locations of all Bald Eagle nests across the state, and conducts a survey each April that citizens can help with. Finding the next nest may just take a little willingness and a sense of where to look. And you know what else helps? An “eagle eye”.