Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) have been coming to the Bras d’Or Lakes to mate, raise their young and hunt for food for thousands of years. The Bras d’Or Lakes have long provided eagles with an ideal habitat–nesting sites in mature trees with a panoramic view of the water, close to an abundant supply of marine life.
The bald eagle was considered an endangered species in the United States for a number of years, when the use of the pesticide DDT wiped out many populations. Birds from the Bras d’Or, largely unaffected by DDT, were later used in reintroduction programs. 80% of bald eagles in Nova Scotia, live here on Cape Breton Island.
The bald eagle is large bird of prey with a wing span of about 2 meters. An adult bald eagle is evenly brown with a white head and tail. The tail is moderately long and slightly wedge-shaped. Males and females look alike, but the female is about 25 % smaller than the male eagle. Their beak, feet, and iris are bright yellow.
The bald bagle is a powerful flyer, reaching speeds of 50-70 km/hr when gliding and flapping, and dive speeds of 120-160 km/hr. Eagles feed mostly on fish. They swoop down over the water and capture the fish in their talons. The grip strength of an eagle’s claw is about ten times stronger than that of a human’s. Bald eagles on average live to be about 20 years of age, with the oldest reaching an age of 30.
When the bald eagle is ready to start breeding, at around 4 or 5 years of age, it will often return to the area where they were born. The bald eagle’s nest is one of the largest of any bird in North America. It is used year after year, with new materials added each season. The nest can be up to 4 meters deep and weigh up to a ton. The nest is built out of branches, usually in large trees near the water.
Eagles will lay from 1 to 3 eggs per year, but it is unlikely that all the chicks will fly. The young require a long season of growth before they are ready to fly. The parents take turns hunting for the food on which their young depend. The parents often will be mates for life.
The native people of the Bras d’Or, known today as the Mi’kmaq, have always co-existed with bald eagles. The Mi’kmaq hold the bald eagle in high esteem — a creature with farsightedness and vision, to be treated with respect; a reminder of the creator. They are a sacred animal, who carries their prayers upwards to the creator, and their feathers for ceremonial purposes.
Scientist consider the health of the eagles of Cape Breton to be an indication of the health of the ecosystem in which they live. Since they, and other birds of prey, are at the top of the food chain, toxins from the environment accumulate in their prey, and become more highly concentrated in eagles and other raptors.
We at the Bras d’Or Preservation Nature Trust believe that the future of the Bras d’Or Lakes will depend on people’s knowledge of their environment, and their own farsightedness and vision, in the same way that future generations of eagles will depend upon their parents knowledge of the land and water in which with they live and hunt.