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News and events

News & events

Unwelcome neighbors

January 12, 2015

By Bryan Watts

On March 22, 1936, Bryant Tyrrell traveled to the farm of Hiram Brown near Chestertown, Maryland, to investigate a report of a bald eagle nest. Upon entering the colonial-era manor house built in 1708, he was shown into the sitting room and led to the large wooden mantel over the fireplace. There he was proudly shown four sets of marks that had been etched into the wood. The marks spanned 7 feet 1 ¼ inches, 6 feet 11 ¾ inches, 6 feet 10 ¼ inches, and 6 feet 9 ¾ inches. Mr. Brown explained that these marks recorded the wingspans of four eagles that had been shot on the property, trophies of past family adventures.

Just nine days later on March 31, Tyrrell was taken to a nest constructed in a dead American chestnut on Eagle Point along the Bush River. The nest was on Edgewood Arsenal, a government facility established to produce mustard gas following the entry of the United States into World War I. Although a single adult eagle was seen in the territory, the nest had not been used since an adult was shot there two years previous. On this same day, Tyrrell was led to a second nest on the arsenal. The nest was built in a large oak on Robbins Point and was also abandoned. He was to discover later in December that three young birds were killed there by hunters who believed the birds were feeding on ducks. Examination of their stomachs revealed only fish.

On April 14, John Shelton led Tyrrell down a long foot path to High Point. High Point is a bluff overlooking Belmont Bay where Occoquan Creek enters the Potomac River east of Washington, D.C. The commanding view over a large expanse of water and abundant prey attracted eagles like a magnet. On this day, Shelton would take Tyrrell to a tremendous American chestnut tree that had recently died from chestnut blight. The tree towered over the surroundings and was the primary eagle perch on the bluff where birds came and went throughout the day. Shelton indicated that he knew of more than 50 eagles that had been shot from the tree, and during their visit the two men found a fresh carcass on the ground. Thirty years later, this site would become Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

On May 7, George Frederick took Tyrrell to a nest on Upper Chippokes Creek near Claremont on the James River. Mr. Frederick, who ran a line of several hundred muskrat traps along the upper James, had previously killed one young in the nest but the second remained. He explained that the attitude toward eagles in this part of the Bay was very poor. Eagles regularly discovered muskrats in his traps and would make a meal of them, damaging the pelts. He estimated that he lost 10 muskrats weekly to eagles, amounting in a total loss of more than 10 dollars per week. When partially-eaten muskrats were found, the local practice was to set several additional traps around the kill so that when the eagles returned they would be caught and later shot.

On June 9, Howard Green took Tyrrell to a nest on Ordinary Point Farm along the Sassafras River. Mr. Green was surprised to see two large young in the nest and said he would return the next day with a rifle to kill them. On this same day, Tyrrell met Roy Mitchell who owned a farm on Freeman Creek along the Sassafras. Mr. Mitchell indicated that earlier in the season he had seen an adult eagle catching his chickens and so had killed the young in the suspected nest on his property.

During the spring of 1936, W. Bryant Tyrrell by foot and car conducted the first survey of bald eagles throughout the Chesapeake Bay. His field log records the best assessment we have of the general number of eagle pairs and their productivity prior to the DDT era. His interactions with landowners also record the sentiment of people toward eagles during this time period around the Great Depression. Watermen, duck hunters, fur trappers, farmers and lumbermen all seemed to have their own concerns and attitudes about the presence of eagles in the Bay. Although the time was nearly twenty years after the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and killing eagles was a violation of federal law, the practice was accepted by the culture of the day. More than accepted, within this resource-based economy during a time of great hardship, there was an unmistakable kinship that eclipsed the value of the eagle population.

Although we continue to have the occasional boy attempting to “test his sense of manhood” by shooting an eagle, the days of widespread killing have drifted beyond our cultural memory into the gray past. Today, the bald eagle breeding population is booming within the Chesapeake Bay and is approaching numbers likely not seen since colonial times. Many people living in the Chesapeake watershed now live in upscale residential developments named “Eagles Landing”, “Eagle Shores” or “Eagle Bluff”, a clear indication that attitudes toward our national symbol have shifted over the past 80 years. Both the eagles and people of the Chesapeake Bay survived the Great Depression. The continuing hope is that our two populations, now completely intertwined, will have a lasting future together.

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