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Luskin: Eagle Watching

I was born during the heyday of the agricultural use of DDT, so I didn’t see my first bald eagle until twenty-two years after the pesticide was banned.

It was a Sunday in early March in the nineties, a day when old snow and bare trees added to the gray gloom of a winter spent cooped up with three young children in a small house. Disorder reigned indoors where I stewed in domestic dissatisfaction until my husband rushed in.

“Come with me!” he said, already bundling the children in their winter gear. “There’s an enormous bird!”

And there it was, perched in a tree on the bank of the West River: a giant bald eagle, peering down its yellow beak at us. We stared back until our necks ached.

When we returned home, the disorder remained, but the mood had lifted. We were a happy family again.

That my children saw their first bald eagle in the wild at ages three, five and six is the direct result of the ban on DDT, the chemical that led to their near extinction in North America. I was then thirty-eight.

The bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list shortly after our sighting, though it’s still a protected bird imperiled by illegal hunters and environmental hazards. Nevertheless, its comeback seems nothing short of miraculous to me, which may explain my current obsession.

There’s a nesting pair visible from a hiking trail near where I live. I take binoculars and watch the giant birds care for their young. Even without binoculars, I can see the bright white head of the parent-in-charge from a considerable distance. With field glasses, I can see right into the nest.

The first week, I saw only one parent sitting stoically, patiently, and alert. The next week, I saw the changing of the guard when the smaller male flew in and the mom took off. I know it’s shameless anthropomorphism but I still couldn’t help but think back to the days when I’d pass the kids over the Tim as soon as he returned to the nest so I could rush off to write behind a closed door.

My kids have all fledged now, which may explain why I find watching these eagles so poignant. Or maybe it’s because the return of the eagles from the edge of extinction gives me hope that we humans can, in fact, change our behavior toward the natural world.