In the 1960s bald eagles were endangered and virtually extinct in most parts of the United States. Today they are as common as pigeons on statues, but less messy.
A half-century ago it looked like we might have ogled our last eagle, as DDT in the food chain rendered their eggs too brittle to hatch. But use of the pesticide was brought under control, and eagles began a comeback. In 1983 a pair was found nesting in Tennessee.
Today eagles are everywhere, including at Radnor Lake, where I spotted pair while hiking the other day.
To put it in perspective, Radnor Lake is so close to downtown Nashville that on a calm Saturday night you may hear the jukebox at Tootsies. Yet there were the eagles – majestic symbols of the American wilderness, soaring high overhead, white heads and tailfeathers glistening in the winter sun.
Those weren’t my first Tennessee eagles, just the first in Music City.
Every spring I fish Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee, where eagles launched their state comeback. Their giant nests, added onto every year until they are the size of Volkswagens, can be seen all around the lake.
Reelfoot Eagle Tours are big business, with pontoons of eagle-watchers patrolling the shallow waters, binoculars trained on craggy cypress tops. For 17 years the lakeside town of Tiptonville has hosted an Eagle Festival, with displays of eagle-themed arts and crafts.
Eagles and I go back much further than Radnor and Reelfoot. I saw my first one some 40 years ago deep in the Canadian wilderness. By “one” I mean “one flock.” Around Little Vermillion Lake, accessible only by bush plane, eagles were everywhere.
They emitted a unique high-pitched skreeeeee! The relentless screeeeeeing was entertaining for the first three or four days, then not so much.
The eagles were smart, and our band of anglers was not their first rodeo. They perched in treetops along the banks, watching us fish. When we tossed back an under-sized pike or walleye, an eagle would swoop down and scoop it up.
In addition to being opportunists, the eagles were scavengers. At the end of the day, we would clean our fish and putter out to “Gut Island” to dump the scraps. The trees were full of eagles waiting for supper. Before we could shove off, they would fly down and start chowing down on the rancid fish heads and innards. It wouldn’t have made a pretty post card.
A fishing buddy said an eagle was just a buzzard with a good PR agent.
Ben Franklin suggested making the wild turkey our national symbol, instead of the eagle, but he was defeated by the powerful eagle lobby.
And so stands the majestic eagle, sharp of eye, claw and beak, symbol of strength and might -- despite its table manners.
I’m glad eagles have made a comeback in the Lower Forty-Eight. Now everybody can get a gander at what was once a rare bird.