The bald eagle, our nation's emblem since 1782, came perilously near to extinction in the United States. But thanks to aggressive recovery efforts, bald eagles increasingly are seen soaring in American skies, including those of the Florida Keys.
Bald eagles had almost disappeared from the Lower 48 states by the mid-20th century, with an estimated 417 pairs in the U.S. in 1963. In 1973, there were only 88 bald eagle nests in Florida.
But conservation efforts have seen that number to grow to 1,457 nests in Florida by 2011, including at least seven in the Florida Keys. Statewide, the eagle population in 2011 was up 9 percent since 2008, when the state implemented a bald eagle management plan, said Michelle Van Deventer, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission bald eagle plan coordinator.
Wildlife biologist Tom Wilmers has monitored eagle nests in the Keys from 1986 to 2010. The most nests he has counted in one year was seven, but "there surely were other nests I did not find," he said.
Wilmers describes the eagle population in the Keys as stable.
Eagles nest on federal wildlife refuge islands throughout the backcountry for more than 60 linear miles from east Bahia Honda Key to the Marquesas Keys, Wilmers said. Eagles defend large territories during the nesting season, he said.
Statewide, the story is equally optimistic.
"Bald eagles have made a remarkable recovery in Florida," FWC Chairman Kenneth Wright said last week in a media statement. "The FWC and Audubon are working together to protect bald eagles in Florida, so these majestic raptors will continue to soar as a symbol of national pride and conservation success."
Bald eagle populations began their decline in the mid-1900s largely because of the use of the now-banned pesticide DDT, which caused eggshells to weaken and break under the weight of adults incubating eggs.
Other threats still exist, and a predominant one is something Florida has seen on a major scale in recent decades -- development, Van Deventer said. The state now prohibits any development or new road construction within 100 feet of an eagle nest.
A healthy and stable eagle population in Florida depends on continued availability of appropriate nesting and foraging habitats, as well as protection from disturbance during the nesting season, according to the FWC.
"They need space to effectively raise their young," Van Deventer said.
Federal officials first listed American bald eagles as an endangered species in 1967. In 2007, the Department of the Interior took them off the endangered species list, and the FWC took them off its Imperiled Species List.
While the bald eagle is no longer listed as an endangered or threatened species, it is federally protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and there are state conservation laws protecting the bird. It is illegal to feed, disturb, take or possess a bald eagle, its feathers, nest or eggs.
The public can help conserve bald eagles in Florida by following state guidelines for activities near eagle nests and by reporting new eagle nest locations to BaldEagle@MyFWC.com.