By Lauren Wanko
“They’re making a huge comeback. I’ve been with the county for almost 21 years and we almost never saw eagles when I first started here,” said Mercer County Wildlife Center Director Diane Nickerson.
This past year, the Division of Fish and Wildlife biologists and observers documented and monitored 156 bald eagle nest sites throughout the state — an all time high.
“Other good news — finally surpassed 200 chicks produced in one season, which is a lot. This is New Jersey, the most urbanized state, and we have a really thriving population,” said NJ Endangered Species Program Biologist Kathy Clark.
The bald eagle is still listed as a state endangered species. There was only one nesting pair in Cumberland County from the 1960s through the early 1980s.
“They had survived the DDT years. It’s a very long lived pesticide that would thin the egg shells. For years and years they were laying eggs that weren’t hatching,” Clark said.
The recent increase in bald eagles in the state started with that nesting pair. In the 1980s, the Division of Fish and Wildlife removed the eggs from the wild, incubated them and eventually brought the chicks back to their parents.
The team also released young chicks, or eaglets, that came from Canada. Clark insists improved environmental conditions in the state have helped the eagle population thrive here too. Now nests are in 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, including urban areas. Still about 45 percent of all nests are found in Cumberland and Salem counties.
“It’s so exciting to see how many nests there already are,” Nickerson said.
At the Mercer County Wildlife Center, about 2,200 injured animals are nursed back to health.
One female adult bald eagle has lived at the Mercer County Wildlife Center since 2006. She fell out of the nest in South Jersey and broke her wing in two places. She can’t fly well enough to hunt or migrate. She’ll most likely be here for the rest of her life.
The eagle’s about 12 pounds with a six-foot wing span.
“They don’t start out looking like this. All their feathers are brown,” said Nickerson.
Its feathers start to turn white on the head and tail at about 4 years old.
“They are full grown by the time they’re about 2 1/2 months old,” Nickerson said.
They migrate out of their nesting territory in late summer and lay anywhere from one to three eggs a year.
“About half of the chicks hatched in any one year are not going to survive,” said Clark. Why? “Raptor populations are built that way, long lived but have to get through that first year of survival, have to learn how to hunt, have to learn how to migrate.”
Clark says eagles have been recolonizing habitats that have been empty for decades, but the birds need good trees and foraging areas along with protection from disturbance.
“We are the ones with the thumbs, we’re the ones who are supposed to be able to figure these things out, so we can make this a peaceful planet for all of us to be here and they’re part of what we are, all of the wildlife is part of what we are,” said Nickerson.