Bald Eagle Populations in Massachusetts

Bald Eagle adult calling from the top of a large conifer © Jeff Blanchard
Bald Eagle (adult) © Jeff Blanchard

Prior to 1989, the last presumed nesting of Bald Eagles in Massachusetts took place at the beginning of the 20th century. While considered a rare breeder in the Commonwealth, this eagle was once a relatively abundant species across North America.

But it suffered an alarming decline in the 1950s and 1960s with the widespread use of DDT. The pesticide had a catastrophic effect on the eagle's ability to produce the calcium needed to coat their eggs. As a result, the eggs were laid with soft shells, or no shells at all, and were crushed by the weight of the brooding parent.

In 1972, the Federal government banned the use of DDT in this country, and the Bald Eagle population in the United States has now recovered to the point where it has been changed from "endangered" to "threatened" status at the national level.

Bald Eagle adult returning to nest with fish © David Ennis
© David Ennis

Reintroducing Eagles

In 1982, the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (MassWildlife) teamed up with Mass Audubon to launch a project to restore the Bald Eagle as a breeding bird in the Commonwealth. In the spring of that year, two eagle nestlings were brought from Michigan and raised in a specially constructed nest platform on a remote peninsula in Quabbin Reservoir.

Caretakers used eagle "puppets" to feed the chicks so that the birds would imprint on their own species rather than on humans. The hope was that these young birds would either remain or return to breed in the area in which they were reared.

The birds were successfully introduced into the wild. Between 1982 and the end of the program in 1988, a total of 41 Bald Eagle chicks were brought from Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Michigan to be raised and released at Quabbin Reservoir.

Bald Eagle adult flying above icy water © Peter K. Burian
Bald Eagle (adult) © Peter K. Burian

Results

Bald Eagles take four or five years to reach breeding maturity. And in 1989, two pairs of eagles successfully reared young at Quabbin. The parents included "Ross," the first eagle raised at Quabbin in 1982.

In the years that followed, the number of nesting eagles increased and spread across the state. During the 2012 breeding season, there were 38 territorial Bald Eagle pairs recorded. Of those, 27 pairs incubated eggs and produced a total of 31 chicks who survived the nestling stage and successfully fledged. Once young eagles are able to find food on their own (usually in late summer), the parents go their separate ways.

Breeding Status Today

Experts have since confirmed nests at Quabbin Reservoir; along the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers; and on lakes in Plymouth County. In 2012, Bald Eagles nested at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton—the first confirmed eagle nest at a Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary! Massachusetts-born eagles have also been documented as nesting in Connecticut and New York, adding to the overall recovery of the species in the northeast.

→ For the most recent data on Bald Eagles in Massachusetts, check out the results from the Breeding Bird Atlas 2 and State of the Birds.