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Bald eagle in an unusual pose on a nest near Hopewell along the James River. [View Image]

James River bald eagles reach symbolic milestone of 300 pairs

July 9, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University has compiled the 2019 survey results for bald eagles nesting along the James River.  The breeding population has increased to 302 pairs and the river is the most significant tributary for eagles throughout the Commonwealth.  The new milestone is particularly gratifying since the James is the only major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay where the species completely disappeared as a breeder in the 1970s.  During the 2019 breeding season, the population produced 344 young.  Strongholds along the river include Charles City County (62 pairs), James City County (50 pairs), Surry County (39 pairs), and Prince George County (36 pairs).  

The 300-pair barrier represents a symbolic milestone.  In 1990, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Bald Eagle Recovery Team established 300 pairs as the recovery goal for the entire Chesapeake Bay.  For the James River alone to have surpassed this goal is a remarkable achievement.  The James now supports one of the densest breeding populations found anywhere throughout the species range.  Based on subsampling, the population for the tidal reach of the broader Chesapeake Bay is now estimated above 3,000 breeding pairs (ten times the initial recovery goal) and is the largest in eastern North America. 

Bald eagles breeding along the James River have been surveyed via airplane every spring since 1962.  Jackson Abbott, the grandfather of the survey, stated in 1962 that Jamestown Island on the James was the center of the Chesapeake Bay population because it supported three breeding pairs.  In 1963, an adult female experiencing convulsions was recovered from Jamestown Island and later died of DDT poisoning.  By 1975, there were no known breeding pairs remaining on the entire James River.  In 1980, the first breeding pair returned to the James on Upper Chippokes Creek and the population has continued to increase since that year.  During the 2019 breeding season, Jamestown Island supported an amazing eight occupied territories.    

Bald Eagle Timeline for the James River 

1950s – 23 pairs known to nest

1963 – An adult female was found on Jamestown Island dying of DDT poisoning

1972 – DDT was banned in United States

1975 – No breeding pairs remain

1980 – A single breeding pair established nesting territory

1990 – 18 breeding pairs found

2000 – 57 breeding pairs found

2013 – 204 breeding pairs found

2019 – 302 breeding pairs found

Graph of James River bald eagle breeding population [View Image]

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