Birds of a Feather
By Alesha Damerville
Story and Photos By Douglas Wipper
The existence of bald eagles here in the Yampa Valley could be, well…flighty.
Although they’re opportunists and will also eat rodents, birds and small mammals, bald eagles’ main food source is fish from the river in our back yard. Their keen eyes and ability to dive for prey at up to 100 mph make them an extremely successful predator. But with fish populations dwindling, eagles’ favorite food is getting harder to find.
Today’s eagles often have to rely on deer and elk carcasses and remains left by hunters for food, and as a result, many have died from lead poisoning due to bullet fragments. Tracey Bye, who operates the local Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation program, has been treating eagles with lead poisoning for 25 years. "Indigenous tribes all over the world believe that eagles are sacred and messengers to the heavens,” Bye says. “I believe this also. The beautiful eagles in our valley are a great gift to us and carry this sacredness for our world. We need to treat them and all animals with the respect they deserve and remind ourselves that each moment we get to experience seeing an eagle or any wild animal in our valley – it makes our lives so much more beautiful. Our work now is to take care of their habitats, so we can make their lives more beautiful too.
Our national symbol, in fact, nearly became extinct because of illegal hunting and the use of the pesticide DDT. In 1967 they were declared an endangered species, and weren’t delisted until 2007. They are still protected by law.
That doesn’t mean they’re in dire straits. Weighing up to 14 pounds and having a wingspan of up to eight feet, Yampa Valley eagles, which nest in April in the cottonwoods along the Yampa, can live up to 25 years. Mating for life, the females – which are a third larger than males and sport a larger beak and rear talon (or hallux) – lay one to three eggs, with the young hatching in 35 days and flying in three months. One pair nesting along the Yampa for over 20 years has raised 30 offspring.
It will take five years for these offspring to change color, from a mottled brown similar to a golden eagle, to the familiar white head and tail and dark brown body. But for them to reach this iconic appearance, it’s important to understand how our own use of the natural environment affects them. This can include keeping a safe distance from eagles and their nests, and refraining from leaving lead materials where hunting and fishing have taken place. When it comes to protecting their ever-important habitat, we should act as birds of a feather.
For information on Douglas Wipper, https://www.instagram.com/douglastheravenwipper/