In Eagle’s Plume—The Struggle to Preserve the Life and Haunts of America’s Bald Eagle (1996; Scribner; 318 pp.; $25.00), author Bruce E. Beans points out that the bald eagle population of the contiguous United States has been doubling every 6 or 7 years since the 1970s. The bald eagle, indeed, was recently upgraded in status from being designated federally endangered to federally threatened, reflecting the bird’s status as a recovering species (reviewer’s update: in 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal Threatened and Endangered Species List). This is good news. Yet the overall message in Eagle’s Plume is not one of unquestionable optimism. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Beans reaches far beyond citing mere upward or downward numerical trends in eagle populations. He recognizes that as a top of the food web predator, the bald eagle is a reliable biological indicator of environmental health, and that (paraphrasing Larry Niles, Chief of the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program) “…if we could manage our environment so we could keep eagles, it [is] likely also to be healthy for us and the rest of the planet.” Managing the environment for bald eagles, however, is not straightforward or easy, as Beans illustrates, especially when not everyone agrees that this would be a good thing to do.
As the subtitle of the book implies, Eagle’s Plume is as much about the people involved in the bald eagle story as it is about the birds themselves, although the book contains an abundance of eagle facts scattered throughout. In fact, many of the book’s main human characters are given a short background sketch, as well as a brief physical description. This was obviously an attempt to make the major players appear more human, and it would have been more successful if some of the descriptions were not subtly biased. For example, eagle researcher Bill Bowerman is referred to as “Fair-skinned and blond, with a broad build and cherubic face…,” while Beans emphasizes the “shirtless potbelly” of a man who just happens to have his “low, mean ranch house featuring a Confederate flag” located in what was once prime eagle habitat (which has since been made less then prime due to the housing developments). There are a few other examples of this bias toward presenting only characters who are eagle proponents in a favorable light. This made me somewhat question other aspects of the book that appeared impeccably objective and well researched. (Notes on sources of information are grouped by chapter at the end of the book, but it is difficult to use the notes as there are no references in the main text.) Although I would probably agree with the author’s impressions had I met these people—and I certainly am an eagle proponent—environmental reporting must remain objective, otherwise credibility may be sacrificed.
The tone of each chapter is set with one to several poignant quotes located near the chapter headings. The quotes, usually referring to bald eagles, encourage the reader to think beyond the moment and to expect anything. How else can one read about government-subsidized predator control using poisoned carrion in the West that results in the deaths of a variety of non-target species, including golden eagles and bald eagles? I was shocked to read that a recent resurgence of Native American cultures and pride (including growing interest from non-Native Americans) has spawned a black market in eagle parts (e.g., talons), even including entire birds. Beans furnished the details of several case studies that involved undercover work by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents; in some instances, guilty parties received prison sentences and heavy fines.
Eagle’s Plume is comprehensive in summarizing current threats to the bald eagle, including continuing contamination from synthetic organic chemicals such as PCBs—a threat which began with DDT in the 1940s. Even with all the progress made in pollution control since the 1960s, some researchers refer to large portions of the Great Lakes as a “bald eagle sinkhole,” as many eagles, dispersing to the Great Lakes from other areas, appear to be prematurely dying. Deformed eaglets (e.g., crossed bills) are continuing to occasionally turn up in nests located in Great Lakes states, which suggests eagle food sources (primarily fish) are contaminated. In fact, it is well known that fish in the Great Lakes, especially in areas near centers of industry, are contaminated with a variety of synthetic organic chemicals to such a degree that fish advisories are in effect advocating limited consumption (see Hesselberg and Gannon 1995).
Even with illegal shooting, secondary poisoning from baited carrion, and long-term threats from persistent chemical contamination, it is clear that Beans regards habitat loss as the greatest threat facing bald eagles today and in the future. From New Jersey and Chesapeake Bay to Florida (especially Florida) and Alaska, Beans details examples of the destruction of wild areas to make room for expanding urban areas, second home developments, the accompanying highway infrastructure, and the congestion and noise which feeds upon itself creating more of the same (sometimes my objectivity wears thin when I think about expanding urban sprawl and its contribution to habitat loss). Edward Abbey referred to it “The Blob.” In his book The Journey Home, Abbey quotes Frank Lloyd Wright who said, “If you don’t want to live in the city pick a spot ten miles beyond its outermost limits—and then go fifty miles further.” Charley Broley is quoted by Beans as saying, even in 1951: “There are just too many people moving to Florida—the [Gulf] coast is soon going to be one long village.”
Beans emphasizes the seriousness and pervasiveness of habitat loss by relating examples throughout the book. Just as bald eagle populations are recovering from the eggshell-thinning DDT era, their preferred remote, wild habitats are being encroached upon by human developments. An extreme example is given of the subcontractor in Florida where the land developer told him “…he’d give me a hundred dollars cash if I could just knock the [eagle nest] tree down.” The subcontractor declined the offer. Beans relates another Florida story where an eagle nest tree was cut down; the tree was located on valuable real estate suitable for development. Incredibly, one egg from the nest, after falling forty feet and being chilled for over twelve hours, was alive. The egg was subsequently hatched artificially, and the eaglet raised and successfully fledged. Those who cut the tree have never been found. These stories underscore the fact that in a competition for resources between eagles and humans, the eagles unaided and alone stand no chance of winning.
In the book’s final chapter, Larry Niles is quoted as saying, with reference to bald eagles, that “…our experience is that our species has [an] almost unending responsibility for taking care of them.” I agree. The chemicals contaminating eagles, and other organisms for that matter, are of human manufacture; we degrade their habitats to render those habitats unsuitable or destroy habitats outright. Larry Niles has made a good point. The question is whether we are up to his challenge. There are too many examples today where a healthy environment or the fate of a species or a biological community is unfairly pitted against local jobs and economic growth, as if that is all we can aspire to. Beans provides typical examples such as the proposed Chilkat National Bald Eagle Refuge in Alaska that was never established because of local residents who feared governmental control of their lands. Beans suggests that part of the habitat loss problem could be solved if bald eagles could learn to nest closer to human habitations and tolerate higher levels of human activities. Most evidence from scientific studies indicates there is little chance of this happening soon (for example, see Buehler et al. 1991 and McGarigal et al. 1991), although certain eagles in Florida have become so tolerant of human activities that they have been dubbed “urban eagles” (reviewer’s update: the number of nesting bald eagles in Illinois has continued to increase). In terms of evolutionary time, we have pounced upon the eagles in an instant; they have not had sufficient time to adapt.
Flooded bottomlands at Meredosia NWR with bald eagle nest, May 1999
In a larger sense, this book is a summary of several interrelated environmental issues that affect humans as well as bald eagles: contamination of the environment, increasing development of wild areas and habitat loss, a healthy environment perceived as being incompatible with a healthy economy. Bald eagles will probably benefit from our attempts to solve the many environmental problems confronting our world. But the eagles have shown us that we still have a long struggle ahead.
Buehler, D.A., T.J. Mersmann, J.D. Fraser, and J.K.D. Seegar. 1991. Effects of human activity on bald eagle distribution on the northern Chesapeake Bay. Journal of Wildlife Management 55:282-290.
Hesselberg, R.J., and J.E. Gannon. 1995. Contaminant trends in Great Lakes fish. Pages 242-244 in E.T. Roe, G.S. Farris, C.E. Puckett, P.D. Doran, M.J. Mac, editors. Our living resources: a report to the nation on the distribution, abundance, and health of U.S. plants, animals, and ecosystems. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Biological Service, Washington, D.C. 530 pp.
McGarigal, K., R.G. Anthony, and F.B. Isaacs. 1991. Interactions of humans and bald eagles on the Columbia River estuary. Wildlife Monographs 115:1-47.
Review by Thomas V. Lerczak
[This review was originally published in Illinois Audubon magazine, Winter 1997-1998, Number 263, pages 8-9.]