My daughter and I were at the Littleton REI on South Wadsworth this spring, when she looked up and pointed. “An eagle!” In Littleton? Disbelieving, I looked and squinted at the bird. It was big, and dark. It held it’s wings flat. And then it banked and the sun flashed off it’s head and tail. There was no mistake. “A BALD eagle!”
Eagles are the largest birds in Colorado. In fact, in North America, only the California condor is larger. Eagles can be recognized in flight because they are very large birds that hold their wings flat as an ironing board when flying.
Bald eagles aren’t really bald, they just have white head and tail feathers. In old English, “bald” means “white”. Balds don’t have feathers on their legs because they are primarily fishing eagles, and these feathers would constantly get wet, weighing the bird down.
Bald eagles nearly became extinct in the United States in the last century. Ranchers had long hunted and poisoned them as predators of lambs and calves. DDT, the miracle pesticide of the post-War Period, made the egg shells so thin that the parents would crack them when sat on them to keep them warm. Loss of habitat around lakes and rivers reduced the number of good nesting sites. By the 1950s, there were only about 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.
The good news is that balds are making a comeback in North America, and Colorado. A ban on DDT in the United States and protection under the Endangered Species Act have brought bald eagles back from the brink of extinction, and to being taken off the Endangered Species List. In fact, bald eagles are considered “a prime example of how the Endangered Species Act has worked” to save a species from passing into a nostalgic memory.
Bald Eagles hang out near open water and prairie dog towns in search of their favorite foods: fish, water fowl and prairie dogs. They sit in trees until something comes within range; then they pounce. Often they will steal a meal from Ferruginous Hawks or Ospreys, rather than catch their own.
Each nesting season, balds reuse the same huge nest, sometimes for years, until it can weigh a ton. They are very sensitive to human disturbances during nesting, so respect their space while they are raising their young.
In winter, balds may flock up, their numbers swelling with out-of-state visitors who drop in to feed at Colorado’s ice-free waters. You might see several of the big birds perched in the same tree along the shore of a wetland, waiting for their chance to drop on some hapless creature below.
Your best chances of seeing a Bald Eagle is near a large body of water. The White, Yampa and Colorado Rivers on the Western Slope attract balds, as does the San Luis Valley during the spring and fall water bird migrations for which it is famous.
On the Front Range, watch for Bald Eagles around the Rocky Mountain Arsenal between I-70 and I-76, Standley Lake on CO 121/Wadsworth Boulevard, Jackson Reservoir north of Wiggins on I-76, Pueblo Reservoir west of I-25, and John Martin Reservoir on U.S. 50. Or, of course, the parking lot of the Littleton REI.
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