Birds of the Hackensack:
By Ivan Kossak
As our national symbol, the Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is certainly one of the most identifiable avian species to most Americans. However, the Bald eagle is also a symbol of hope for critically endangered species to recover with the help of intelligent regulation and human help.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Bald eagle populations were in serious decline due to the use of pesticides such as DDT. Pesticides entered the food chain and caused the eggshells of certain raptor species to become weak and unable to support a healthy embryo. Eagle numbers in New Jersey dropped from at least 60 nesting pairs at the turn of the 20th century to a single nesting pair in 1968.
With the banning of such pesticides, as well an ambitious program launched by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protectionís Division of Fish and Wildlife, eagle numbers slowly rebounded from the early 1980s through the present time. DEPís techniques included placing captive-raised and foster chicks from outside New Jersey into artificial nests to gradually acclimate the chicks to life in the wild. As a result of this program, 38 pairs of Bald eagles successfully raised 41 young in New Jersey during 2003.
The adult Bald eagle, with its bright white head and tail, is readily identifiable. However, it takes four to five years for the Bald eagle to develop its distinctive adult plumage. Younger birds have dark heads and tails, and show a variable degree of mottling in its mostly dark brown torso and wing feathers. Experienced observers can often determine an individual eagleís age based on its plumage pattern. Even without considering its plumage, Bald eagles can be readily identified by their immense size, proportionately larger head than other raptors, and; in flight, by their extremely long plank-like wings.†
Breeding Bald eagle pairs in New Jersey will usually be found in the Delaware Bayshore region and along the Delaware River. In recent years, nesting pairs have also been observed along some of the stateís larger reservoirs. While there are no recently documented cases of Bald eagle nests in the Hackensack River watershed, these birds can readily be found wintering along the Hackensack. These magnificent raptors are seen regularly at, among other places, DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst and the Oradell Reservoir. Most people may assume that these birds are looking for fish (and fish does make up a substantial part of the Bald eagleís diet), but Bald eagles are accomplished hunters who often make a meal of waterfowl and even carrion.
While visiting the river in winter or during spring and fall migrations, donít forget to scan the skies, the trees surrounding large bodies of water, and even the ice when the lakes freeze. You may be rewarded with a glimpse of Americaís national symbol. Perhaps more appropriately, however, in its comeback to a healthy population here in New Jersey, the Bald eagle may symbolize the recovery of the Hackensack River itself.
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