Growing up on Long Island in the 1960's I had the pleasure of seeing many wide-open spaces and rural spaces. Although house building en masse started after WWII there was plenty of wooded areas back then and wildlife of all kinds.
Yearning for more, I devoured any book on animals I could find and dreamed of one day seeing lions, hippos, polar bears and perhaps a RAPTOR!
From the latin rapere, meaning to seize or take by force, raptors are birds of prey. Collectively hawks, falcons, owls and eagles to name a few. With their keen eyesight and razor-sharp talons, raptors rule the skies and fascinated me at an early age. Although they were resident here, it wasn’t likely that I would ever see one from my suburban perch.
Once abundant, raptors were tragically decimated by the effects of the mosquito control pesticide DDT, which weakened the thickness of their egg shells which were crushed in their nests. The English environmentalist and resident Long Islander Dennis Puleston documented the decline in Ospreys, rightfully accusing the deadly pesticide "Using DDT to control mosquitoes was like torpedoing the QE2 to get rid of the rats on board". His actions, research and persistence, aided by the likes of naturalist and author Rachel Carson author of “Silent Spring”, resulted in the ban of DDT in New York State in 1966 and eventually the USA.
The ban worked and slowly raptors numbers grew. Red tailed hawks were the first I spied and are now a common sight here, resting ironically on light poles along our parkways. Ospreys, aka fish hawks or sea eagles are now routinely found along our shores in summer with well-wishers erecting poles with platforms for them to manufacture their magnificent nests on. This bird is found on every continent but Antartica and migrates great distances, returning to Long Island waters in early spring to raise their young.
The raptor species list is long but the granddaddy of them all, the big kahuna, soars across the skies of Long Island once again: The Bald Eagle!
Designated our national symbol in 1782, Bald Eagles once blanketed America from coast to coast with hundreds of thousands of nesting pairs. Then the collapse began. Early farmers and fishermen thought bald eagles were a menace to their trade and routinely shot the bird to “protect their livelihoods.” Standing three feet high w wing spans of six feet, they require large trees to nest and habitat loss further reduced their numbers. The final blow was almost delivered by DDT when the census in the ‘60’s counted less than 500 pairs remaining in the entire country.
I saw a bald eagle in the skies over my Islip home a few months back and, I have to admit that I had to stop and “take a moment”. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife in dozens of countries in my travels, but this sighting choked me up a bit. It’s wings spread, talons dangling, that magnificent white head of feathers, eyes piercing, the water full of fish below, was like a dream come true for me. I understood why our forefathers selected it to represent America.
We live in a time of polarizing division in our country with everyone immediately taking sides on any issue. Our skin has become as thin as an eggshell. I think we should stop for a minute and look up in the sky and be thankful for who we are, what we have and what this bird represents. Strength, dignity, tenacity. If the site of a bald eagle flying overhead doesn't make you proud to be an American…