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Pulitzer Prize winning author will speak on South Coast about his new book looking at bald eagles

 Historian Jack E. Davis has written a new book about the iconic American bald eagle, and how it has survived two near extinctions thanks to humans.
UCSB Arts & Lectures
Historian Jack E. Davis has written a new book about the iconic American bald eagle, and how it has survived two near extinctions because of humans.

The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America's Bird tells the story of how the iconic bird survived two near extinction events.

They are majestic creatures, and are the national bird of the United States.

But for decades, bald eagles were maligned, and driven to the edge of extinction.

"In the 18th and throughout the 19th, and into the early 20th century, the bald eagle was treated like a lot of so called unsavory predators like mountain lions, and bears, and coyotes, and wolves," said Jack E. Davis, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author.

He's written a new book about the birds, called The Bald Eagle:  The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird.  He’s set to speak on the South Coast this week.

By the late 19th century, so many had been shot they were in danger of going extinct. In 1940, Congress passed a law to protect them from being shot. But, shortly after that, the use of the pesticide DDT became widespread. It was a new round of devastation for the birds.

The DDT was in rivers and oceans, ending up in the fish which make up the bald eagle’s diet.

50 years ago, a number of steps put the birds in the path to recovery. In 1972, the use of DDT was banned, and the federal government stepped up to pass new protections for the eagles.

Nowhere is that success more apparent than the Channel Islands. The DDT in the fish in the ocean made the shells of the egg of the birds so thin they would crack during nesting. The population was so small, the remaining birds were rounded up for a captive breeding program.

With the bald eagles gone from the Channel Islands, non-native golden eagles moved into the habitat. They don’t eat fish, but they loved eating the cat-sized island fox, which is only found on the islands. They hunted the foxes to near extinction. The few remaining foxes were removed, and put in a captive breeding program to increase their population.

Over 20 years, the captive bald eagle population increased to the point where they could be re-released in the islands. The DDT has dissipated to the point where they could once again breed naturally. At the same time, the golden eagles were captured, and relocated. Finally, island foxes were re-released in the islands. The bald eagle and island fox populations are now healthy, and the effort is considered to be a model of fixing a man-made ecological crisis.

So, why did Davis want to write the book about bald eagles?

"As an environmental writer, I wanted to write about a success story," said Davis.

He says we are seeing the birds in numbers we didn't even see 10 or 15 years ago.

"I thought people would like to know more about this bird...both the species...and its historical relationship with the United States," said Davis.

The University of Florida history professor talks about what he hopes people get from the book.

"We share the environment with wildlife. If wildlife isn't doing well, we aren't doing well," said Davis. "And, we can do right by the environment. This can bee a model."

Davis won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. It looked at the history of the Gulf, and how it is interwoven with American history.

He’ll speak about his new book, The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird Thursday night, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The UCSB Arts and Lectures event is presented in conjunction with the museum, and the Santa Barbara Audubon Society. The 7:30 p.m. event is free, with the book available for purchase and signing.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.