Bald Eagle Population Resurging In Rhode Island

Feb 11, 2015

Birders are spotting bald eagles in Rhode Island in greater numbers than ever before. As Rhode Island Public Radio’s environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza reports, this is a sign the bird of prey is rebounding in much of its former geographic range, which includes New England.

New England historically had very high breeding populations of the bald eagle, particularly in Maine. Juvenile eagles and adults frequently came to Rhode Island during the non-breeding season to winter here or look for their own habitats. Ornithologist Charles Clarkson, who coordinates the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, said the Ocean State is starting to see more transient bald eagles.

“They are actually coming to the coast because this is a region that has still an abundance of prey resources during the winter months because most of the bodies of water don't freeze over,” said Clarkson.

Clarkson said federal acts to protect habitats and endangered species, as well as captive breeding programs, have helped to bring back the bald eagle population.

Clarkson said now bird enthusiasts are reporting bald eagle sightings in the teens to low 20s.

“When they see something, they report it, which is a really good thing actually. It allows us to track, through citizen science, the movements of species,” said Clarkson. “We get an idea of geographic range. We can get an idea of abundance of different species from all of these reports coming in from avid bird watchers, who are out birding in nature year-round in this state. It's one of the benefits of having a large population of nature enthusiasts in a small state, such as this.”

Clarkson said most of bald eagles are transient non-breeders, looking for habitats to rest and forage during the winter. In addition to the transient bald eagles, the state now has three to four breeding pairs.

“Still, it’s a huge treat for this particular state because for the longest time we didn't have this resource available to us. So if you are a birder, for example, seeing a bald eagle in this particular state is a rarity up until fairly recently.”

Clarkson, who sits on the board of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, attributes the bald eagles’ growing presence to all the open space many conservation groups have preserved. He said that kind of land protection allows the symbolic bird of prey to find the undisturbed habitats they need. 

The bald eagle population began to dwindle after the expansion of our country’s population. As we started to expand westward, Clarkson said we started to change habitats for farming and hunting. In doing so, we removed nesting and foraging habitats for this particular species.

Clarkson said a number of other factors also contributed to the overall decline of the species, such as hunting, the introduction of large-scale salmon fisheries, and DDT and lead poisoning. Many bald eagles suffered the effects of lead poisoning from the embedded rifle bullets in the carcasses they’d scavenge.

Note: A previous version of this story stated Vermont historically had large breeding populations of bald eagles. Like Rhode Island, Vermont historically has had transient bald eagle populations. 

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