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A Soaring Success

Bald Eagle Expert Joins Legendary Explorers Club Honorees

By Karen Shih ’09

adult bald eagle flies as baby sits in nest

A fledgling bald eagle peers out of its nest as a parent flies off. Thanks in part to UMD Professor Bill Bowerman's research in Michigan over the last 30 years, the population of America's national bird has surged back from the brink of extinction.

Eagle photo by Kathy Koenig; headshot courtesy of Bill Bowerman

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary. Titanic discoverer Bob Ballard.

Now, environmental science and technology Professor Bill Bowerman joins their ranks as a 2023 recipient of the Lowell Thomas Award from the Explorers Club, founded more than a century ago to honor groundbreaking scientific field work.

Bill Bowerman headshot

Since 1986, Bowerman has kayaked down rivers, flown in helicopters and climbed trees—some more than 10 stories tall—to find bald eagle nests and collect data on population health and environmental contaminants. Thanks in part to his work, the bird has soared back from the brink of extinction, now inhabiting 49 states. He’s also lent his expertise to raptor researchers worldwide.

He spoke to Maryland Today about the first time he encountered America’s national bird, why they’re a “canary in a coal mine” for environmental health and the new threat of avian influenza.

Why bald eagles?
I grew up in a very small town on Lake Superior, surrounded by forests. I’d hunt with my uncles for ruffed grouse each fall. When I was 16, we were out at an inland lake in the Upper Peninsula, and I saw a bald eagle perched on a tree. That was it. I wanted to understand: Why was this the first time I had seen one? Where I grew up, there should have been lots of them.

What was the state of the population in 1986?
We didn’t know if there were going to be bald eagles in 2000. Since the 1950s, chemicals like DDT and PCBs had caused thin shells and deformed chicks. DDT was banned in 1974 but lingered in the ecosystem. Even after a decade, the population hadn’t rebounded.

I submitted my first proposal to study nestling eagles, which are easy to handle when they’re between 5-9 weeks old and can’t fly, and I’ve been doing it every summer for almost 40 years. Eagles, as top predators, are good indicators of the health of the environment. For example, the first samples of PFAS (the “forever chemical” found in nonstick cookware, raincoats and umbrellas, cleaning supplies and more) in wildlife were from my bald eagle samples in 1993.

What’s a day in the field like for you?
Bald eagles primarily eat fish, so I’ll trudge through gnarly swamps to get to the nesting sites, which we find by aerial surveys. A team member will climb the tree, then carefully hook the nestling by its legs to put it into an eagle bag. We bring it down to band it and take samples of blood and feathers to test for mercury and other contaminants. Then we climb back up, put it back, and repeat.

How is climate change affecting bald eagles?
They’re nesting earlier. In the 1960s, researchers banded chicks in mid-June. Now, we go out on May 1. It’s a six-week change, and our data shows it’s accelerating in recent years. Warming temperatures may also be causing them to shrink, because traditionally, they’re bigger where it’s colder, like in Alaska. Eagles have adjusted so far, but continuing climate change could burn their forest habitats, change the available prey or cause heat stress.

What’s happening with avian influenza?
There’s only one thing in 39 years in the field that’s scared me, and that was the first nest we found this spring. All we saw were bones and feathers—white ones showed an adult had died. In 2022, In 2022, 37% of the bald eagle mortalities in Michigan were from avian influenza. It’s a grave impact. I’m working with a population modeler to understand how much. Did we lose a year? Five years? A decade? Eagles have a 25-year reproductive span, so this could be significant.



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