The bald eagle was on the verge of taking flight from the Garden State. By 1982, their numbers had dwindled down to one nesting pair that was unable to successfully hatch an egg for six years in a row.
Now their numbers have risen to 250 nesting pairs, according to the NJ Bald Eagle Project Report released last Friday by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in partnership with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. Another 17 duos were also spotted, but without egg-filled nests, meaning the survey spotted 267 bald eagle pairs in total statewide. This tally includes 29 new eagle pairs discovered in 2022.
Organizers said the rebound is due to regulations such as The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the 1972 ban on the pesticide DDT, as well as recent conservation efforts through monitoring and public outreach.
“They [NJ DEP] basically started the Bald Eagle Project because there was one [bald eagle] nest in New Jersey,” said Larissa Smith, a wildlife biologist at the Conserve Wildlife Foundation.
Among the bald eagle’s greatest threats was dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT — a pesticide used to control mosquito populations that is now banned nationwide. DDT poisoned bald eagles via the fish they consumed, and would thin the shells on their eggs to the point that eagles would often crush them accidentally.
“[Without conservation efforts], the [bald] eagle might have died out and gone the way of other birds, like the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon and the dodo,” said NYC Audubon's Executive Director Jessica Wilson, who has seen a similar rebound in bald eagles along the East Coast.
The national bird still faces other challenges as a result of human activity. In New Jersey, the country's most densely populated state, space is at a premium and constant development continues to reduce or interfere with available habitats. That includes areas for nesting, roosting and foraging. Mortality rates are also very high among bald eagles. Up to 80% die before reaching the age of 5, when they are mature enough to reproduce.
“Their [young eagles] first year is really tough because they're going out on their own,” Smith said. “They're just really learning how to fend for themselves, how to feed themselves, how to get around.”
Last year, about 150 volunteers conducted the monitoring and reported that 83% of nests successfully produced offspring, a total of 335 eaglets. About half of all the nests were concentrated along the Delaware Bay region, which includes the counties of Cumberland, Salem and Cape May. The report states the bald eagles’ current productivity is enough to keep the population growing.
“That's the highest number of eagle fledges that we've ever had in New Jersey – that is a really good number,” Smith said. “For the immediate future, they're [bald eagles in NJ] definitely going to increase.”
In New Jersey, bald eagles remain on the state’s endangered list during breeding season, despite no longer having that status federally for over 10 years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages a recovery program that runs through 2027 with the purpose of monitoring and documenting the yellow-beaked raptors to protect their nests, provide public outreach and acquire more knowledge for conservation management.
“Bald eagles are an indicator for the health of the environment. Birds just like people need clean water. They need green space. They need clean skies to thrive,” Wilson said. “As the populations of bald eagles rebound, we're seeing similar success stories with some birds.”