The Bald Eagle's Bold Comeback The American bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list Thursday. Dr. Patrick Redig, founder of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, talks about the bald eagle's transformation from widely-hunted raptor to one of the primary symbols of the United States.
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The Bald Eagle's Bold Comeback

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The Bald Eagle's Bold Comeback

The Bald Eagle's Bold Comeback

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And here in Washington, D.C., this morning, the federal government announced that the American bald eagle is back. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne spoke at a news conference this morning at the Jefferson Memorial to announce what everybody was expecting. Biologists say there are now at least 10,000 mating pairs of bald eagle in the lower 48 states. In the 1960s, they were fewer than 500.

Pat Redig is founder of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota where he teaches avian medicine. And he joins us now from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in Saint Paul. And Professor Redig, nice to have you on the program today.

Professor PATRICK REDIG (Founder, Raptor Center; University of Minnesota): Pleased to be here.

CONAN: And let me remind people. We think, of course, of bald eagles as the awesome, majestic national symbol, these monumental birds. How could we have ever allowed them to become so endangered? Yet, what? Fifty, sixty years ago, they were hunted. Farmers shot them to feed their pigs. Some places, they were considered vermin. What happened?

Prof. REDIG: Well, I think what we were seeing then was a continuation of what had been the prevailing attitudes of Manifest Destiny and other assorted things that accompanied European settlement to the United States. And it all really started coming to a head in the mid part of last century, as we realized that our resources were not infinite and that we could, in fact, negatively impact the environment and the creatures that live in it.

CONAN: Yet we came to that realization. Coming to that realization doesn't necessarily get us to change the things that we do. What do you think it was about this broad program to bring back the American eagle, the bald eagle, that worked?

Prof. REDIG: Well, you know, I think at the end of the day, we have to say it was really the will of the American people. And I think it was reflecting a change in culture and a change in our collective relationship and understanding of our relationship to the environment. In 1940, when the first piece of federal legislation was actually passed to protect the eagle, that was the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, it was coming on the heels of probably over 100 years of out-and-out persecution of the bald eagle, including the fact that in Alaska, they actually paid a bounty on bald eagle because it was believed that they were competing with people up there for fish, primarily, the salmon.

After the fact, it was learned that eagles are feeding primarily on spawned-out salmon that were dying anyway. And - so there are number of misunderstandings, misbelieves and just lack of knowledge and appreciation for these birds that got us to that point. And it was a sea change in public attitude that was ultimately led to legislation that got us to the point where we are now.

CONAN: And there's one other person, I guess, who has to be given credit here and that would be Rachel Carson.

Prof. REDIG: Well, to be sure, Rachel really sounded the alarm that caught everybody's attention in a way that few people have and it benefited not only the bald eagle, but the paragon falcon, the osprey, many other raptors and many other species of animals.


Prof. REDIG: As well as people.

CONAN: She, of course, pointed out the dangers of DDT, which was in the process of going into the food system, up the food chain into the bald eagles and fatally weakened the calcium of their eggshells.

Prof. REDIG: That's correct. And, you know what? The thing that we have to realize is that the bald eagle was on a long steady decline long before DDT was introduced in the '40s. And in fact, the bald eagle population started to stabilize a little bit after the first piece of legislation was passed in 1940. And then, in the '50s and '60s with the introduction of DDT, they really got clobbered, and we had very precipitous declines in their population then so that we - I just said in the outset - we ended up with only about 500 pair in the lower 48 by 1963.

CONAN: At some point, did you think that this battle was lost?

Prof. REDIG: Well, growing up and coming of age in the mid '60s, this was all very bewildering. To me, I've loved raptors ever since I was a small child in northern Minnesota. And to come up with the realization that wonderful, magnificent creatures like the bald eagle and the paragon falcon and others were going down the tube literally because of human ignorance and carelessness was just very, very alarming and caused lot of anxiety.

But I never thought the battle was lost because I think by the early '70s, we saw this whole awakening of an environmental consciousness in this country long before the eagle was endangered, really going extinct. And it gave us the opportunity to do things about it. So I was always very confident that we could this.

CONAN: We're talking with Patrick Redig. He's the founder of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota and professor of avian medicine at the University of Minnesota. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line. This is Robert. Robert with us from Granger, Wyoming.

ROBERT (Caller): Yes. Hello.


ROBERT: I'm calling in - and with the utmost respect for what your speaker is talking about with declining populations, and people not really noticing those declining populations. I'm sort of seeing that today out here in Wyoming. I'm wondering if - my real question is how is the delisting of the bald eagle going to affect the integrity of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act?

CONAN: And again, that was the piece of legislation initially passed in 1940 that barred people from killing bald and golden eagles. Go ahead, Patrick Redig.

Prof. REDIG: Well, the thing about the eagle that makes it different from most other animals that are - any other animals for that matter that are on the endangered species list is that it is backed up protection-wise by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act itself. And so the Endangered Species Act provided special protections for habitat and also provided for management and the direction of resources through the Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the eagle to recover the populations.

However, many of the protections that are in the Endangered Species Act against, you know, disturbance and harm and shooting and taking and possessing and all of those kinds of things, are also pieces of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. And so there's going to be quite a, I think, a relatively seamless transition as we go from one piece of legislation to the other that protects the eagle in that there really won't be that much difference on the ground.

ROBERT: All right. Well, I hope it works out like that.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the call.

ROBERT: Thank you for taking me.

CONAN: A lot of people worry though that increased development, particularly on very popular places for houses along lake and river shores and seashores, trees near those places where bald eagles like to put their nest, that those kinds of developments will threaten the bald eagle at least in the long run?

Prof. REDIG: Well, certainly, while we celebrate the recovery of the eagle today, that's not to say that the battle is over or that we can not be concerned about the eagle's future because the very things that you highlighted in terms of habitat - and that's really the key in all of these right now, both in terms of quantity as well as quality - are what are going to determine the future of the eagle. To be sure, we will never see the eagle numbers that were present pre-settlement, it was estimated that there's probably something (unintelligible) a hundred thousand pairs in the U.S. lower 48 part of the settlement, we're at about 10,000 pairs now so roughly 10 percent.

And as we go forward in the future, the size of the bald eagle population is going to be determined by how we manage our development, how we manage the quality of the water that eagles depend on, and there'll be some decisions, some tough decisions that have to be made down the road because we don't have infinite amount of lake shore that the eagles depend on and we'll have to make some decisions between development and eagles.

CONAN: And also, as you look ahead to the future of this - not just the bald eagle but the entire systems on which it relies, one of the principles that, you know, we were told sometimes we concentrate too much on these charismatic megafauna like tigers and bald eagles at the top of the food chain. Yet, other people said, look, if you take care of the bald eagle that means it's got enough fish to eat, which means they have enough algae, and on and on down the food chain. Where do you weigh in on this?

Prof. REDIG: Well, I think that's a very good point. We regard these species like apex predators as they are called, the animals at the top of the food chain, as umbrella species. And to be sure if their populations are thriving and they are functioning normally. One can make a broad implication or inference that everything below them that they depend on is, by and large, in good shape. It also implies that there's, you know, this is an ecosystem-level thing over large geographical landscapes given an animal like the eagle that has a lot of territory.

CONAN: So this is…

Prof. REDIG: But it's exactly true.

CONAN: This is a good time. Nevertheless, it doesn't mean that we should ignore the more threatened smaller and less charismatic animals.

Prof. REDIG: Well, each of them has an indicator of its level in the ecosystem in terms of the quality of it. And these animals all serve as sentinels of the environment that we all live in, including humans, and so we can take a lot of cues from them about what's going on and what we're doing to it. One of the things with the eagle that we predict about and concerned about have been for many years and going down into the future, even under the present circumstance is, lead poisoning from spent ammunition that they ingest from carcasses of animals that they consume. And that's still having an impact on eagle when you do continued work on that as one example.

CONAN: Pat Redig, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. REDIG: Well, thank you very much. It's my pleasure.

CONAN: Pat Redig is an ornithologist at the University of Minnesota. He joined us today from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in Saint Paul.

Ira Flatow will be here tomorrow with SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm off next week. Rebecca Roberts will be in this chair. Have a great Fourth of July. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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