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Eagles’ numbers soaring

Kate Heyden hopes to see 100 this year. Not her age, but the number of nesting pairs of bald eagles in Kentucky.

“Last year, we counted 98 nesting pairs,” says Heyden, the avian biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “This year, we hope to hit triple digits. Most large reservoirs in the state now have at least one nesting pair.”

In 2004, researchers counted just 30 pairs of eagles nesting in the state—less than a third of today’s population. “The numbers are just skyrocketing,” Heyden notes. “Part of the reason is we’ve gotten extra money to fly more helicopter surveys to look for them, but most of the growth is due to natural population expansion.”

Eagles began making their comeback from near extinction after the United States banned the insecticide DDT in 1972. The enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 gave further protection to the birds. Although American bald eagles were later delisted in 2007, they are still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, both federal laws.

Researchers have now documented more resident bald eagles than at any other time in the state’s history. And their distribution is wider because eagles eat a lot of fish, and construction of big lakes in the 1950s and 1960s radically increased the number of areas where eagles could successfully live and hunt.

Bald eagles like to nest close to the water. Their nests, which measure 6 feet across or more, are generally tucked into coves of lakes. These birds usually lay their eggs in January and February. The eaglets generally fledge—leave their nest—anywhere from May through June.

If you happen to see a nest in an isolated area while you’re walking or boating, don’t approach closer than 500 feet. “If you change the behavior of an eagle, whether it flies off the nest or begins vocalizing, then you’re too close,” Heyden says.

Eggs or young eaglets left alone by the parents can be easy prey for raccoons, hawks, crows, or other predators.

January and February are the best months to see eagles in Kentucky. In addition to the resident birds, hundreds of bald eagles from northern climates winter in Kentucky. About half of the migrants stay around Land Between The Lakes, Ballard County, and areas bordering the Mississippi River. Researchers counted 400 bald eagles in Kentucky in the winter of 2010.

“I don’t think Kentucky is at full capacity for nesting bald eagles,” Heyden says. “I think we still have a lot of room for growth.”


Field viewings offer a fun way for the best opportunity to see many eagles in Kentucky. The popular Eagle Watch Weekends by Kentucky State Parks offer 2012 tours at these state resort parks by pre-registration: Kentucky Dam Village, January 20-22; Lake Barkley, January 27-29; and Kenlake, February 3-5. Go online to for more information and tour dates.

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