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Kids and Eagles—

My recent trip to the Thomaston Grammar School fifth-grade classroom, where I’d gone to discuss eagles, triggered some personal childhood memories. As a student at the Bristol School decades ago, I spotted an adult Bald Eagle wheeling high above the playground during a recess break. The eagle’s gleaming white head and tail stood out so boldly against the dark blue sky. With 733 eagle pairs nesting annually across Maine these days, you might think the Bristol eagle was a routine sighting. Well, in a way, it was not. The 1960s was an era when extensive use of DDT pesticides had decimated osprey and eagle populations, leaving Maine with 21 eagle pairs. In 1962, Rachael Carson’s evocative book “Silent Spring” sounded the environmental alarm and DDT chemicals were eventually banned from use in the U.S. in 1970. In following decades, Maine eagle numbers slowly rebounded under the watchful eye of Maine Fish & Wildlife biologists and wardens.

On entering teacher Lynn Snow’s classroom, a Florida live-cam featuring an active eagle’s nest was playing on a laptop and wall screen. The two mates, “Romeo and Juliet,” were incubating their clutch of eggs. Lynn’s eager, observant students already understood quite a lot about this pair. To avoid intense summer heat conditions, southern eagle populations nest during the cooler months of the year. Once the Florida nestlings fledge in April, a few individuals may trace the Atlantic coastline and wander northward into Maine and beyond. Our own Maine eagles will start their breeding activity by upgrading existing nests sometime in mid-March.

I’d brought a collection of eagle artifacts to the Thomaston classroom, natural items gathered off the ground where a perennial Warren nest had collapsed following winter storms some years back. My pine-draped basket of green sprigs held an assortment of skeletal bird, mammal and snapping turtle remains that represent the typical eagle fare. The diet of Maine eagles differs somewhat depending on their regional locations and available food sources: inland and northern dietary content is approximately three-quarters fish, while coastal diets are roughly three-quarters birds and quarter portions of fish. At the coast, sundry gulls, ducks and summering cormorants are found in higher abundance than in inland areas. Slow-reacting Double-crested Cormorants become relatively easy targets as they taxi on the water for takeoff. Being relentless opportunists, eagles will grab a meal wherever and whenever possible.

Several students eyed the basket while its mystery contents remained concealed by a hand towel. Did the basket contain a real eagle skull, one asked? Was the greenery part of an eagle’s nest? Would kids be permitted to touch the items? One student asserted, “I am a very curious person!” “Me too,” I said. “Yuh, I also check my house for hidden Christmas presents,” she giggled. “Me too,” I said. Soon we placed the basket on the carpeted floor as the kids huddled around it.

We carefully surveyed breastbones of several bird species, each with its characteristic profile of a boat keel; some keels showed puncture marks from the eagle’s powerful bill. There were cormorant skulls with the hook-like upper bills intact; feather-weight bones with complex latticed skeletal structures; skulls of three separate small mammals whose fates were probably sealed as they attempted to navigate the open river; and carapaces of young snapping turtles likely snatched from their sunning rocks.

The pine basket also contained a shiny fishing lure and a fist-sized clump of abandoned monofilament line of a riverside fisherman. Kids were quick to recognize the potential dangers of such items around nest sites, recounting experiences where they had retrieved similar debris from ponds and lakesides. In due time, they will become our leaders and future keepers of eagles and much more.