In the 1950s, big truck-mounted contraptions belched clouds of DDT up and down residential streets, especially in the South, to get rid of mosquitoes and other pests.
In New York State, my father and his brother had a small side business using a somewhat smaller contraption on the bed of Uncle Chuck's pickup truck to spray fruit trees with DDT and other chemicals. I used to help my dad with the spraying.
It worked, too. Neighborhoods were free of mosquitoes for weeks and those trees bore beautiful fruit, although I'm not sure it was a good idea to eat it unwashed.
Unfortunately, DDT worked in other ways, too. For one thing, as it made its way through the food chain, it caused the shells of bald eagle eggs to be so thin the parents would break them while trying to hatch their offspring — to say nothing of the effects of DDT on human health.
By 1963, America's national symbol was down to about 400 nests throughout the 48 continuous states. A ban on DDT began in 1972, but by 1980, Pennsylvania had a total of just three pairs of nesting bald eagles.
Then came a success story, detailed last week in a press release from the Pennsylvania Game Commission. In 1983, it said, the state began a bald eagle restoration program in which volunteers caught eaglets in Saskatchewan, brought them to Pennsylvania and acted as surrogate parents until the birds could go off on their own. As Gary Blockus reported Tuesday in his Outdoor Ramblings column, it was part of a federal program, but the state role was significant.
Initially, a dozen eaglets were transported to an island in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, then more were taken to a lake in Pike County, and so forth.
By 1998, there were 25 reported bald eagle nests in the state. There were 48 in 2000 and 217 in 2011. Now, on the 30th anniversary of that restoration, said the Game Commission, there are 252 reported bald eagle nests in 56 of our 67 counties.
Generally, I am not one to heap praise on government, especially not in Harrisburg. This bird, however, is our national symbol and Pennsylvania is our nation's birthplace.
Pennsylvania without bald eagles would be a disgrace, but now we have 252 pairs of them, and those are only the ones reported to the Game Commission. There could be many more nests as yet unobserved.
"A bald eagle is soaring high on the Fourth of July," the Game Commission bragged last week. "And for Pennsylvania this Independence Day, the opportunity to witness such a sight firsthand is greater than at any other time in recent memory." The commission said it "took the bald eagle off the state's endangered list [in 2005] and reclassified it as a threatened species."
I asked Patti Barber, who works in Schuylkill County as an environmental bird biologist for the Game Commission, about those 56 counties where bald eagle nests have been reported. She said they include all the counties in the middle part of eastern Pennsylvania, except for Lehigh. That does not mean there are no bald eagles in Lehigh County; it just means that no nests have been reported yet.
A 2011 report by Douglas Gross, a wildlife biologist for the commission, said Crawford County, on the Ohio line, had the most — 17. Next came Pike County with 14, Berks with five and Bucks with four, illustrating that bald eagles like to live near rivers and lakes.
Gross told me that people who go looking for eagle nests need to be mindful that they can harm the birds almost as much as DDT.
He said observers should not get within 1,000 feet of a nest (use binoculars to get a good look) and should keep the noise to a minimum. "One of the things eagles don't like is if you act like a predator," he said, and that involves anyone who walks toward a nest, which the eagles take as a threat. "They only weigh 10 pounds, and we're kind of big compared to eagles."
He also noted there are federal and state rules against bothering or harming bald eagles, with stiff fines possible.
Actually, the most spectacular gathering of bald eagles I ever saw was just south of the Pennsylvania line at the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River in Maryland, where they take advantage of how the roiling waters bring fish to the surface.
Just as thrilling is the sight of migrating eagles coming very close to us as they use northwest winds to effortlessly glide past the North Lookout at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in northern Berks County.
The bald eagle is magnificent, with a wingspan of up to 7 feet, and watching one soar above or dive down to a river to catch a fish is a wonderful experience.
"The record number of bald eagles [at the North Lookout] a couple of years ago was [over] 400," said Scott Weidensaul, a former colleague at The Pottsville Republican newspaper who is now a prolific and acclaimed author of wildlife books.
"In the 1970s," said Hawk Mountain spokeswoman Mary Linkevich, "the average [of bald eagle sightings at the North Lookout] was 18. Last year we had 365."
We almost lost our national symbol, along with our health, because of a reckless disregard for environmental dangers.
The state's bald eagle saga of recent decades is a shining, albeit rare, example of government getting it right.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.