America’s national emblem was once endangered and at risk of extinction, but it now serves as one of America’s greatest conservation success stories, according to the Cornell Lab.
The bald eagle was declared our nation’s national emblem in 1782, and at that time there were as many as 100,000 nesting bald eagles across the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By 1963, the population had dwindled, and only 487 nesting pairs remained in the country.
The reasons for the decline were many: illegal hunting and shooting; destruction and degradation of its habitat; and contamination of its food source, primarily as a result of the pesticide DDT, the Fish and Wildlife Service reports. The population of the species has recovered as a result of the habitat protections enabled in the Endangered Species Act as well as the banning of DDT by the federal government.
DDT was introduced as a pesticide to control insect populations after World War II. After its application, residues washed into the waterways, where it was absorbed by aquatic life, both plants and animals. Eagles and other animals then consumed the chemical through their diet. The DDT affected the eagles’ eggs, which had such thin shells that they could not be properly incubated and would not hatch.
DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, allowing for the bald eagle population to recover. In 1978, the bird was listed as endangered everywhere in the continental United States except Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, where it was listed as a threatened species.
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After its designation as endangered, breeding programs along with law enforcement, nest protections and reintroduction efforts were put in place to help the bald eagle population recover. In 2007, the bald eagle was officially removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in the United States.
Today, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the United States is home to at least 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles. During the winter months, Illinois is home to more than 3,100 of these magnificent birds, more than any other state except Alaska, according to Illinois.gov. Here in Will County, they are commonly sighted along the waterways during the winter.