Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series of articles on the bald eagle population in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Bald eagles have returned to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to breed and raise their chicks. Each of the three nests on Community land currently has a pair of adult bald eagles making preparations for the 2011 breeding season.
Identifying Bald Eagles
Occasionally, we receive calls from Community members who want to report a bird sighting that they think may be a bald eagle. There are many red-tailed hawks and a few ospreys in the Community. Adult osprey can be confused with bald eagles due to their black-and-white coloring, which can be similar to bald eagles. Ospreys will have white necks, chests and legs. Adult bald eagles have white heads and tails. Red-tailed hawks can be confused with immature bald eagles because they can become very large. Many people make these common mistakes.
Here is an easy way to identify eagles: If you can see the beak, look at how large the beak is in comparison to the bird’s head. The adult eagle beak is yellow and almost half as big as the head. The beaks of the hawk and osprey are about one-third the size of the head and are often dark. A fully mature bald eagle is at least five years old and has a yellow beak, yellow eyes and the classic white head and tail, with dark body feathers. Feather and beak colors cannot be relied upon to identify immature bald eagles; they can have many different combinations of brown and white feathers, and often have a dark beak until they reach five years old. Remember, some of the hawks can be very large and some ospreys have many white feathers, similar to eagles. Looking at the beak size is one of the best ways to accurately determine if it’s a hawk, osprey or eagle. Eagles have the biggest beak.
Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the Endangered Species List everywhere except Arizona. There is a court case going on now that will determine if the bald eagles of Arizona will continue to receive Endangered Species List protection. In response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision, the SRPMIC Tribal Council enacted an Eagle Ordinance protecting bald eagles on tribal land.
For the last 30 years, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has organized a Bald Eagle NestWatch Program to collect breeding/nesting data on the bald eagles and inform the public of how to enjoy the bald eagles without harming them. There are more than 70 active bald eagle nests in Arizona; the NestWatch Program monitors 20 of these nests, including the two Community nests that have the highest likelihood of public disturbance. The 50 remaining nests are located in very remote areas of Arizona; these remote bald eagle nests do well and seldom have problems.
The Bald Eagle NestWatchers record bald eagle activity and any activity that disturbs the eagles, such as people who are hiking, riding motorcycles and bicycles, horseback riding, boating, fishing and flying aircraft over the nest area.
At the end of the year, all of the information is reviewed to see if there is anything that can be done to better protect the eagles. Some types of disturbance have been decreased simply by letting people know that they are harming the bald eagle chicks. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to ask all pilots to maintain an altitude of at least 2,000 feet when flying above bald eagle nesting areas. Several lakes and rivers have sections near the bald eagle nests that are closed off during breeding season to decrease disturbances.
Roads and trails have also been blocked off during the breeding season for the same reasons.
SRPMIC’s Community Development Department/ Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Division (CDD/EPNR), in partnership with Arizona Game and Fish, has worked hard to keep the location of the nests a secret to protect the eagles. When people find out where a nest is located, they like to get close, either trying to get a better look at the eagles or to find some eagle feathers.
Whatever the reason, everyone should know that the result is often dead bald eagle chicks. No one thinks that a quick walk under a nest will cause a big problem. Unfortunately, too many people have the same idea. The result is that the adult eagles are disturbed and fly from the nest several times a day. If the eagles are disturbed too many times, they abandon the nest, and the chicks die from exposure or starvation.
Areas near the Community’s bald eagle nests have been posted with “No Trespassing” signs that look like small red stop signs. These signs also state the area is a protected habitat and cite the federal bald eagle protection laws and the tribal bald eagle protection ordinance. The associated fines and prison sentences are also posted on these signs. The fines can be as high as $5,000, and the prison sentence can be as long as one year for each violation.
If you have any questions or information to provide, please contact the EPNR hotline at (480) 362-7500 with attention to the Range Management Program. If you find anyone disturbing the nest areas, please call the Salt River Police Department at (480) 850-9230.