RIVER5M

Bryan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology released a young male bald eagle on the James River in Charles City County in February 2009.

It's eagle time.

These big birds nest in winter, and from the Richmond area to the Chesapeake Bay, many are tending eggs now. So it's a good time to ask: What do we really know about one of our nation's enduring symbols?

Here are some bald eagle facts and fictions:

Eagles are doing well here ... Eagles nearly went extinct in the continental United States in the 1960s, mainly because the pesticide DDT tainted the fish they ate. In the early 1970s, there were barely 20 nests in Virginia.

But the federal government banned the use of DDT in 1972, and other protections also helped. Now there are more than 1,000 Virginia nests.

"I don't think we've seen these kinds of numbers since Colonial times," eagle expert Bryan Watts said.

... But they still face issues. Humans continue to develop land and cut trees that eagles use, and that increasingly causes the birds to fight over territory.

And while eagles no longer are covered by the Endangered Species Act, other federal laws protect them. For example, you can't shoot eagles or disturb their nests.

Eagles find a home in Richmond. Two eagles, Virginia and James, have nested on or near Williams Island in the James River since the mid-1990s.

In recent years, two other nests have popped up: on an island near the Boulevard Bridge and in South Richmond near Stony Point. Even more eagles nest in nearby counties, and overall, the James River eagle population represents one of the nation's strongest areas of recovery.

Eagles avoid people, except when they don't. For a long time, eagles wouldn't build nests near people, and scientists thought the shy birds simply wouldn't tolerate the presence of humans.

But as eagle numbers grew, isolated nesting spots declined. Today, about 20 percent of nests are in backyards and other places near people. That's a good sign for the long-term health of the eagle population.

Eagles are easy to spot — later in life. Most people recognize the dark brown body, white head and white tail of the adult bird. But young ones are tougher to identify.

They start off a chocolate brown and become a mottled brown and white in their second year. They don't get their striking adult plumage until their fifth year.

Eagles are hunters and scavengers. Sure, an eagle can swoop down to snatch a fish from a river. But the great hunter is also a great scavenger. A dead fish on a bank, a roadkill deer, a groundhog carcass in a farm field — for an eagle, it's all good.

In that vein: While the eagle indeed looks noble with its bright white head, piercing eyes and I-mean-business beak, it isn't above stealing a fish from a smaller osprey. So even a high-flier can have low intentions.

Eagles are big birds ... An eagle in Virginia can weigh up to 12 pounds and spread its wings 7 feet. A nest, which the occupants keep enlarging over the years, typically is about 5 feet in diameter — and sometimes can reach 9 feet wide and 15 feet deep while weighing 2 tons.

... With a voice that doesn't match. Despite that size, the eagle falls short in the voice department.

The screech of a hawk, the haunting hoot of an owl — those are distinctive and often pleasant. The eagle makes a sort of raspy squeal, sounding more like an excited teenager than Morgan Freeman.

Eagles are monogamous, except when they aren't. When asked if eagles mate for life, bird expert Mitchell Byrd likes to say "they take a break once in a while."

Eagles typically stick with one mate, but on rare occasions, a male will have two — a sort of bird bigamy.

Also, there are so many eagles now that a solo bird will sometimes attack a nesting eagle and try to take up with its mate. These fights can end in death to the nesting bird or the intruder.

Eagles are great parents, except when they aren't. Eagles will dutifully sit on eggs in snowstorms and fend off predators such as owls. At the same time, they often will feed a bigger, more aggressive chick while a smaller one peeps in anguish.

If a chick dies in the nest, an eagle parent will sometimes push the body from the nest — or eat it, or feed it to the remaining chicks. "I don't think it's a surprise at all" that eagles make use of that nutrition, Watts said.

Eagles are wild animals, not feathered humans. People like to attribute human characteristics to animals — we say eagles are regal, and snakes are mean — but there's no basis for the connection. Eagles are driven not by noble thought but by instinct, created by many years of evolution.

"They don't have a clue that they are our national emblems," Byrd said.

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