Being a Brief Life History of the Bird of Freedom in Pennsylvania

With an Introduction
Member American Ornithologists' Union

"High o'er the watery uproar, silent seen,
Sailing sedate in majesty serene,
Now midst the pillared spray sublimely lost,
And now, emerging, down the Rapids tossed,
Glides the Bald Eagle, gazing, calm, and slow,
O'er all the horrors of the scene below;
Intent alone to sate himself with blood,
From the torn victims of the raging flood."

Published by the Altoona Tribune Company


APPARENTLY the Bald Eagle (Falco Leucocephalus) has disappeared from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, though it may still, in diminished numbers, frequent the lower reaches about Chesapeake Bay. No more will it soar above the river and mountains to the joy of the gay-hearted raftsmen, who, like the Bird of Freedom, are gone from "The Great Island River," the meaning of the Indian word Susque-Hanne. That the bird existed until comparatively recent years, in about stationary numbers, seemed to be due to the interest maintained in them by the rivermen, who respected anything that savored of flood-tides, stormy skies and boundless spaces. There was a thrill in the riverman's life as in the early spring he swept down the brown surging current, surveying the farms, villages, canal locks, crags and distant mountain ranges, on to Marietta! There, in the cozy bar of the "Indian Queen," he would recount his adventures, his experiences, his hopes and disappointments. He was a type, a bold, free, verile strain, that, like the eagle, belonged to the wide world and freedom. It is fitting, therefore. that one of the last surviving raftsmen of the West Branch, John H. Chatham, should recount the life history of the Bald Eagle on the Susquehanna River as he knew it. When the raftsmen vanished and the canal was torn out, a new era seemed to dawn, in which the eagle was judged as a thief and an interloper, and given no quarter by every pot-hunter from the Blue Hill to San Domingo Island. One by one he was shot down, until today the Bald Eagle is a memory as far as Pennsylvania is concerned. He may still appear as a straggler now and then, but it is extremely doubtful if any Bald Eagle has harbored along the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania for several years. In this connection it may be interesting to give a few recent instances of Bald Eagles killed at or near this river, showing the gradual and steady warfare of extermination. During most of this period the Bald Eagle was protected by law, but its bulky size proved an irresistible temptation for the pot-shooter, and the free mansonry which exists among violators of game laws has protected in every instance the culprit from prosecution. A well-known pair of eagles nested on a tall white oak tree on an island near the Isle of Que, near the mouth of the Christunn or Middle Creek. Both were shot twelve or fifteen years ago, and the tree cut into cordwood. It is related that the sticks composing the nest furnished a wagon load of kindling. J. Herbert Walker, gifted naturalist and associate editor of the Lewisburg Journal, says that a hunter of Lewisburg killed a Bald Eagle on the river near Selinsgrove in 1905, and it is now mounted and on exhibition in his home. Nevin W. Moyer, of Linglestown, Dauphin County, tells of an immature Bald Eagle killed on a mill pond near that place in 1882, and of another Bald Eagle seen in the same locality about three years ago. Some twenty years ago, he states, a pair of Bald Eagles attacked some workman on a steeple in Harrisburg and were shot. About 1882 a handsome Bald Eagle was killed in Lancaster County, in the vicinity of the Millersville State Normal School. It was mounted in an amateurish manner, soon falling to pieces. The claws were handed about among the scholars, and it is not known what became of them. Charles Lukens, of Duncan's Island, near the mouth of the Juniata River, states that a hunter, now residing at Halifax, killed a Bald Eagle on Peter's Mountain in 1910. He made ready to take the carcass to Harrisburg to claim a bounty, but, on learning that it was a protected bird, abandoned the trip, and it is not known what became of the eagle. Charles Smith, an intelligent farmer residing in Haldeman's Island, states that it was formerly not an extraordinary occurrence to see Bald Eagles soaring over the island and the river, but for several years he has not seen any. Rev. B. H. Hart, of Williamsport, who owns an island not far from Liverpool, says that Bald Eagles were formerly seen in fair numbers along the river and at his island, though he cannot recollect having seen any for several years. The last he saw lit in a slough, and from behind a thick tangle of bushes he watched it walking about the muddy bank catching frogs. Several Bald Eagles were killed along the Juniata River in the past ten years. One was mounted and set up in front of a cabin not far from Huntingdon, a short distance from the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. There, in full view of the crowded passenger trains, it has been a familiar landmark to the writer when en route from New York or Harrisburg to Altoona for the past seven years. Charles H. Eldon, leading taxidermist of Central Pennsylvania, has mounted several Bald Eagles taken on the Susquehanna River during the past thirty years. Daniel Ott, of Selinsgrove, born 1820, died in 1916, in his 97th year, has said that about 1832, when the West Branch Canal was building, Bald Eagles were numerous along the river, and were familiar objects until possibly fifteen years ago. The young birds often venture inland, and are guilty of divers indiscretions. For instance, in 1916, Hon. Frank B. Black sent the writer from Somerset County an immature Bald Eagle that had become entangled in the wool on a sheep's back, and was easily captured. It was christened "Brumbaugh," and was a notable object at the zoo at "Restless Oaks," being finally sent to Dr. W. T. Hornaday, and is now on exhibition at the Bronx Zoological Park, New York City. In the summer of 1918 the writer, in company with Mr. Chatham, saw two immature Bald Eagles on the Sinnemahoning, near Round Island, Clinton County. That eagles were very numerous at the mouth of the Susque-hanna is attested to by William Carpender, a member of the New York Society for the Protection of Game, the oldest game protective organization in the United States, founded in 1847, who tells of an occasion, in the seventies, when he was fishing in the vicinity of Chesapeake Bay, he saw twelve Bald Eagles at one time on the ice floes on the river. It seems a pity to have to record the passing of the bird which our fathers selected as the emblem of freedom, especially at this time, when we are elated with our victory in the World War. This noble bird, despite unproved charges of theft, should have been saved with as jealous care as we give to the American flag. But not so. Up in Alaska a bounty law was passed recently putting a premium of fifty cents on every Bald Eagle killed, and, according to the Audubon Society officials, 5,100 of these birds have been slain in a period of eighteen months. That seems a crime, and any man who would kill a Bald Eagle must (or rather should) feel like a murderer and be treated on a plane with a desecrator of his flag. But it is useless to tell how he should feel, for such men have no feelings---it is future generations, full of reverence for the sacred emblem of freedom, who will execrate the slavers of the national bird. The writer can never forget a visit which he paid to the taxidermist shop of W. W. Hart, in New York City, on a hot, sultry day in 1899. A Bald Eagle, suspended by a string, hung in the office, and the thoughts evoked by this ignoble exhibition gave rise to the following lines, composed on the homeward journey, lines which the writer often repeats to himself when from the car window he sees the rugged height of Mahantango Mountain or the broad expanse of the Susquehanna River looking out towards Liverpool:

Suspended by a dusty string,
In a dingy down-town store,
With wings wide-spread,
A stuffed Bald Eagle hangs;
And as the summer breezes blow
Filth-laden through a small window,
This regal bird, which once did soar
Above the clouds, above the storms,
Swings gently round and round.
The fierce eyes, aggressive and proud,
Replaced by glass beads, stare at space,
And as in swinging, faces to the left,
Reflected in a mirror sees its image face to face,
Then silently anon it swings.
If there is a spark of spirit left,
Can it but feel that some time there will come
A day when that vile cord will break,
Released of its humbled burden dumb,
When a vast black age will reign,
And. every feather in its proper place,
Will gaze into a jeweled mirror then,
And see its living image face to face.

But now we must turn to Mr. Chatham's fruitful pages and learn all about our now vanished bird-king, and in the breathless interest of his descriptions fancy for the nonce that the Bald Eagle is still with us, and when the sky is lowering and the river runs high and brown and swift, it is still soaring above in wonted majesty, bearing nature's harmony on each stroke of its mighty wings! Would that we had Pennsylvanians who would be like the Duke of Argyll, who protected the eagles on his game preserves in Scotland, "because they fulfilled the harmony of nature!"

RESTLESS OAKS," July 15, 1919.


WHILE many of our American people have seen the Bald Eagle, and know much about its habits and appearance, it is also true that millions of our vast population know little or nothing about the noble bird beyond what they have read and seen of its likeness on our battle flags and patriotic literature.

I have heard many people say we should have chosen the little King Bird for our emblem. If only our good fighting qualities as a nation were to be represented in the emblem, that bird would surely represent us. The King Bird is quick, bold and intrepid, always on the look-out for trouble.

We are great and powerful, meditative and patient, and when our homes and country are threatened with violence and invasion, are quick and strong in defense. And in these respects the eagle better represents us. Within the recollection of my father, who was born in 1808, the Bald Eagle nested as far west on the Bald Eagle Creek as Milesburg, there being a nest on a large button-wood tree on an island near the present location of the town. The Indian chief, Bald Eagle, also had his favorite campgrounds there.

They nested on the West Branch of the Susquehanna as far up as the mouth of Sinnemahoning Creek. There were also a few nests on the North Branch. My first recollection of an eagle's nest was on the Race Ground Island, below Williamsport; the next one at that time, that was on the river, was one on an island opposite Bainbridge, I think called San Domingo.

I saw three nests when I first went down the river on a raft, which was in the spring of 1862. The eagles were busy at the last named place nesting and rearing their young. I want to state here that all three of these nests were built on button-wood trees. As we always took on a falls pilot at Middletown, we happened to get Henry Isaacs for our pilot, who lived in the town of Bainbridge, and from his front porch had an eagle's nest in full view and watched them for many years building their nest and rearing their young.

I was, at the time I speak of, but fifteen years old, but began to ply him with questions about the eagle. When he saw my desire to know about the noble bird, he took great pleasure in telling me many incidents that had transpired at the nest. He said he saw them tearing down the old nest, and when they had finished their work he took his boat and went over to see the contents. He said the bottom or first sticks of the nest, many of them, were as thick as his wrist, and that he could not have hauled the pile of brush and large sticks on a dump cart.

He told me they tore the entire nest down every third or fourth year, then built it up of new material. The intervening years they simply rebuilt the top and relined the inside.

He related an incident of the eagle and a duck, in which the eagle was giving chase to a duck, the former being about ten feet ahead of its pursuer. One can imagine with what avidity the duck would fly, and the eagle, straining every muscle of his superior form and build, but the chase was an even one, he said, as far up the river as his powers of vision could discern.

Some years later I had the pleasure of seeing the same sight. I saw a duck coming up the river with an eagle in pursuit. At first I thought the eagle within a foot of its prey, but as they neared me the space between them became greater and greater, and when directly overhead I saw the eagle was about fifteen feet in the rear. When 1 saw them coming I quickly got a board, stood it up on end, placed one foot against it, the board being at an angle of about sixty degrees, let go of it with my hands, and put my weight on it while it was falling. This produced a report equal to that of a gun, but the pursued and pursuer were not affected by the report, so intent was the duck to escape its relentless pursuer, and the eagle so determined on its purpose that my artillery had no effect whatever. My sympathy was with the duck, and I was hoping that it would make a quick plunge for the water and thus rid itself of its most formidable enemy, but later years have taught me that would have been suicidal, as on a downward plunge and catch is the method by which our eagle maintains his existence.

The Bald Eagle lives largely by watching the osprey or fish hawk and pursuing it until forced to drop its fish, which the eagle catches by looping-the-loop downwards before the fish strikes the water. I watched an eagle eating a fish on a large limb of a tree about forty feet from the ground, when by some means it slipped from its grasp, and before it was more than half-way to the ground the eagle had made his plunge, caught it in his talons and rose again to the limb from whence it dropped. Perhaps no other bird of any considerable size is so agile as the eagle.

I have seen the osprey slowly winging his way up the Susquehanna, stop and hover for a minute or two, then drop ten or fifteen feet, poise again, drop a little ball of mucus and when it made a wake in the water the fish would rise to inspect it, and when thus near the surface the bird would make a plunge, seize its prey and be bearing it away to the limb of a tree, when suddenly an eagle would appear on the scene and give pursuit, but all the power of flight it was capable of making the eagle would gain on it so rapidly that it, with a loud scream, would drop the fish, and before it reached the water was caught in the talons of the eagle, borne to the limb of some great tree or wafted to its nest to satisfy its clamorous young. A single eagle can hardly ever secure a duck in the water alone, and for that reason they double up when getting a duck in the water. The first eagle makes a dart for the duck, which dives on the instant it is to be seized, and the eagle flies on as soon as the duck's head appears above the surface, for it is then swimming low; the second eagle attacks when the duck submerges again, to appear in another place. By this time the first eagle is ready for attack again as soon as the pursued appears with its head out of water. Thus alternately they keep up their tactics until the duck, exhausted for want of breathing time, swims for the shore to hide in the ill protection it affords, where it is caught and devoured by its relentless pursuers.

Mr. Isaacs informed me they hatched but once in a season and reared from three to four young. He assured me that they never committed any depredations on the fowls, pigs or lambs in the vicinity of their nest, but when they took a young pig or a lamb it was always from ten to fifteen miles from the eyrie.

Their period of incubation is twenty-three days, and the young, when hatched, are thickly covered with a rich, cream-colored down, or much the color of a young gosling or duckling. They are, when hatched, well provided with sharp talons, and the bill shows its hooked form so noticeable in birds of prey.

Some large boys attempted to get the eaglets from the nest of which I spoke, at Bainbridge. They secured a long ladder and ropes and planned on going up the ladder and with a long pole shove the end of a rope over a limb above them and pull down the end, tie it to a limb, then climb to it, put another rope in operation as before, and thus reach the nest.

When the eagles saw they were being threatened by the above maneuvers, they descended and, each taking a clip at the boys on the tree, soon disheartened and discouraged them, and they were glad to beat a retreat from the tree.

Mr. Isaacs informed me that after the young were reared and had learned fully to navigate, the parent birds would take them away and be absent from their nesting place for about two weeks. When they returned their young would not be with them and never seen afterwards. As stated previously, their chief food supply is fish, which they get largely from the osprey and from dead fish washed to the shores. They are valuable scavengers on any waterway. It is safe to say they never go inland to commit depredations on the farmers' pigs and lambs unless driven to that extremity by a shortage of the water's supply of food. Doubtless they occasionally kill weak or sickly game animals and birds and feed on the carcasses of game which hunters have killed and not found. I have made many inquiries about the nest at Bainbridge, and from what I could obtain from people living in the town, the eagles ceased nesting there about the year 1873 the supposition being that one or both the birds had been shot by unthinking hunters. It is a lamentable fact that most men when out gunning will shoot the eagle or any other rare bird that comes within their reach.

The eaglets do not become bald eagles until about three years old. The term "bald eagle" is a misnomer, as they never become bald as the buzzard or the wild turkey, but, on the contrary, are thickly feathered on head and neck, which does not become white until after the second moulting, and is very noticeable after the first, being streaked with white and brown. Following are some lines which I have penned as a conclusion to this brief outline on the life and habits of the Bald Eagle as known on the Susquehanna River:

Oh, bird of our banner,
With skies for your home;
In calm or in tempest
You gracefully roam.
You fear not the lightning,
The thunder's loud roar
When tempests are raging
You hug not the shore,
But steer your bold craft
To the uppermost sky,
Where you calmly look down
While thunderbolts fly.
There, where you soar and dream
When earth is riven,
Yours a peaceful refuge,
An upper heaven.
Oh, bird of swiftest wing,
Let us learn from you,
The key to greatness is
Ability to do;
That will, courage and force
Win the things we prize,
And that above life's storms
Map like eagles rise.

JOHN H. CHATHAM, July, 1919.