Often described as majestic in appearance – the Bald Eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782. A resident of the North American – this large bird of prey with long, broad wings has been a spiritual symbol of the indigenous tribes of the continent for centuries.
One of the largest birds of prey – their skeleton is comprised of hollow bones that weigh about half a pound while their feathers may weigh twice as much. Possessing dark brown body feathers and white tail feathers with bright yellow legs and bill, it is the bright white feathers on its head that gave this raptor its common name – the Bald Eagle.
Their eyes are nearly as large as a human’s though their vision is more than four times as sharp. Their talons are 2 inches long and capable of exerting a force of 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch.
Despite their stiking appearance as adults – Bald Eagles don’t achieve their signature look until they are about 5 years of age. As juveniles they have mostly dark heads and tails and often look resemble other Eagle species, especially Golden Eagles. Due to this similiarity, Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles are both protected under federal law.
The Bald Eagle is an opportunistic feeder that frequently acts as scavenger as often as it is an active predator. Bald Eagles are primarily found in areas near water such as lakes, rivers, marshes and even coastal regions.
The Bald Eagle’s main diet is fish such as salmon, herring and even catfish when available but they also feed on other birds and small mammals. Bald Eagles are also known to feed on carrion – often dead fish found on the shoreline as well as the carcasses of other dead animals.
Bald Eagles typically nest in forested areas adjacent to large bodies of water. Though they tend to avoid heavily developed areas, they do tend to be tolerant of human activity when feeding. Bald Eagles may congregate around fish processing plants, dumps, and below dams where fish concentrate.
Bald Eagles will sometimes gorge when feeding – ingesting a large amount of food and digesting it over several days. They can also survive fasting for many days, even weeks.
Bald Eagles are capable of floating and they may use their wings to effectively “row” over water that is too deep for the bird to wade in while in pursuit of prey. On the ground, Bald Eagles walk in a rather odd-looking, rocking gait.
Bald Eagles are excellent hunters – usually watching from high points then swooping down to catch prey in its powerful talons. Bald Eagles are also known to simply snatch prey from other birds, most notably Osprey who often frequent the same aquatic habitats as the eagles.
The bird’s common trait of stealing food or scavenging for carrion is what Ben Franklin referred to when he declared the Bald Eagle as “a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…” Mr. Franklin also called the the eagle as “rank coward” since Bald Eagles are often harrassed by much smaller birds such as sparrows. Ben Franklin opposed the choice of Bald Eagle as the national bird of the United States and preferred the Wild Turkey as a symbol of the newly formed country.
Bald Eagles are powerful fliers, known for soaring, gliding, and flapping over long distances. During courtship, Bald Eagles put on some amazing flight displays by flying high into the sky, locking each other’s talons in mid-air, and cartwheel downward together, twirling at full speed toward the ground, separating at the last minute. It is believed that most Bald Eagle pairs mate for life.
Bald Eagles build some of the largest of all bird nests—typically 5 to 6 feet in diameter and 2 to 4 feet tall. While both the male and female gather the necessary materials to construct these enormous nests, but it is the female bird that does most of the placement.
The female lays between 1 and 3 eggs, though 2 eggs are typical of the species. After 35 to 60 days of incubation, the young eagles hatch. Around 10-12 weeks later, these young eagles are ready for flight. Like most birds of prey, the young first practice while still inside the nest by flapping their wings and lifting themselves up a few inches.
Though they are generally solitary animals – except for breeding pairs – in the some parts of their range, particularly during fall and winter months, large numbers of Bald Eagles will roost together in large trees. This behavior is called communal roosting and the birds may number in the hundreds.
The largest population of Bald Eagles in North America is found in Alaska, with an estimated 30,000 birds. In the lower 48 states, Minnesota and Florida have the largest population of these iconic birds.
While the Bald Eagle is among one of the largest birds of prey and they are known for their impressive flights and hunting tactics – many people are surprised by the sounds they make. Often misrepresented in movies with a recording that is actually the call of a Red Tailed Hawk, the Bald Eagle’s vocalizations are high-pitched chirps that sound like they would come from a much smaller bird.
Despite being the national emblem, the Bald Eagle once faced near extinction. During the mid 1900s, their populations fell sharply across much of North America. In 1973, the bird was place on the Engangered Species List.
Following the ban of the pesticide DDT as well as other conservation efforts to protect the eagle and its natural habitats – the Bald Eagle was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007 – though it is still highly protected by U.S. law. Bald Eagles may live more than 30 years in their natural habitat.
Eastern Indigo Snake
The Eastern Indigo Snake is a large, non-venomous snake that can reach lengths of eight feet. It is a shiny bluish-black in color, including the belly. The chin and sides of the head are usually colored reddish or orange-brown. While most Indigo Snakes have smooth scales, adults do have ridges on the front of some of their scales.
This magnificent species is America’s longest snake and is now only found in southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and throughout much of Florida, though it is rare in the panhandle.
The closely-related Texas Indigo Snake is found in southern Texas and other Indigo subspecies, such as the Unicolor Cribo, are found in Central and South America. Until relatively recently, all indigo snakes in the U.S. were considered to be the same species.
Eastern Indigo Snakes inhabit pine flat woods, hardwood forests, moist hammocks, and areas that surround cypress swamps. The Eastern Indigo Snake uses gopher tortoise burrows as shelter during the winter, and during the warmer months, for nesting and refuge from intense summer heat. Because of this, in some parts of Florida, the Eastern Indigo Snake is sometimes called the Gopher Snake.
During the active season Indigo Snakes may move long distances and often forage along wetland regions. With one of the largest home ranges of any snake – up to 200 acres, the Eastern Indigo Snake is often called the “Emperor of the Forest.” The Eastern Indigo Snake is not a constrictor therefore it overpowers its prey with its strong, muscular jaws, and consumes its prey head-first.
Eastern Indigos feed on small mammals, birds, toads and frogs, turtles and their eggs, lizards and other snakes, including venomous species like Cottonmouths and North America’s largest venomouse snake – the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. It is believed that the Eastern Indigo Snake is mostly immune to rattlesnake venom.
Despite their predatory nature and ability to prey upon other large snakes, Eastern Indigo Snakes generally show no aggression when approached. However if frightened; they may flatten their heads, hiss, and vibrate their tails – which produces a rattling sound. Despite these intimidating acts, the Indigo Snake rarely bites.
Indigo Snakes begin breeding between the months of November and April and nest between the months of May and August. Females lay 4 to 12 eggs with the eggs hatching 90 days after being laid. Newly hatched Indigo Snakes are large, measuring almost 16 inches long and weighing 1 and half ounces.
Juvenile Indigo Snakes look very similar to adults but have much more red on their heads. Males grow larger than females. Females Indigo Snakes may have the ability to hold sperm, which would allow them to defer fertilization of an egg. Eastern Indigo Snakes are also believed to be capable of Parthenogenesis (a form of asexual reproduction). Some female snakes that have otherwise had no breeding interaction with any males have been seen laying eggs.
The Eastern Indigo Snake is a top predator within its habitat range and is an important part of a balanced ecosystem, however for over 40 years the Eastern Indigo Snake has been listed as a federal threatened species.
Increasing pressures on Indigo populations include habitat loss, the decline of Gopher Tortoise communities, the reduction of prey animals and an increase in predators such as feral hogs, coyote, raccoons and even fire ants which may destroy the snake eggs. All of this factors impact the survival of the Eastern Indigo Snake.
Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation
The Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation is the premier and only captive breeding facility for the Eastern Indigo Snake. The mission of the OCIC is to re-establish this threatened species into its former range. Originally created and established by The Orianne Society for the purpose of breeding Eastern Indigo Snakes for reintroduction programs, the OCIC is now operated by the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Opened in 2012 and located on 25 acres in the center of historic Indigo range, currently a colony of over 100 Eastern Indigo Snakes is managed for genetic and demographic diversity. A unique feature of the facility is the sophisticated outdoor snake enclosures which offer exposure to all the natural conditions and seasonal cycles found in the wild.
Snakes produced at the OCIC are available for use as reintroduction stock in regions where historic populations have disappeared. The Orianne Center for Ingigo Conservation staff also manages the Species Survival Plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This zoo population serves as education ambassadors for Indigo Snakes and other species of their ecosystem.
Visit CentralFloridaZoo.org for more information and ways you can support the OCIC’s conservation efforts through the “Adopt an Indigo” program or by making a tax-deductible donation.
Recognized by its large size, uniform tan color, and long tail – the largest of the small cat species was once found across North America. It now ranges from the Yukon, throughout the western U.S, and into South America. Besides humans, it has the largest distribution of any terrestrial mammal. Due to its presence across many regions, this cat has is known by many names.
Early Spanish explorers of North and South America called it leon (lion) and gato monte (the cat of the mountain). This impressive cat is also known as the Cougar, Catamount, Panther and the Mountain Lion. Its scientific name is derived from the Incan name – the Puma.
The Puma is a highly adaptable animal that can be found in a multitude of differing climates and ecosystems. From high altitude mountain ranges such as the Rocky and Andes Mountains, to lowland forested regions throughout the western half of North and South America. The Puma is also found in the deserts of the Southwest United States and even in wetlands and swamps of the Florida Everglades.
Pumas are slender cats, generally a solid tan in color, with slightly darker hair on the back and a whitish underside. Those living in warm, humid areas tend to be a darker, reddish brown color, and mountain lions found in colder climates have thicker, longer hair that is almost silver-gray in color.
They have a pinkish nose with a black border that extends to the lips. The muzzle stripes, the area behind ears, and the tip of tail are black. The Puma’s tail is long, cylindrical, and about one-third of the animal’s total length. Their limbs are short and muscular and their feet are broad, with four digits on hind feet and five on forefeet.
Males are larger than females. The head and body length of males may reach up to 5 feet long with a 3 foot long tail. Despite their size, however, Pumas are more closely related to smaller felines like domestic cats than the larger members of the cat family such as Lions and Tigers.
Primarily active in the evening and nighttime hours, the Puma is considered nocturnal or crepuscular though daytime sightings do occur. These powerful carnivores hunt using a stalk and ambush technique, which means that they require dense cover to hide from their prey while they are hunting. When a prey item is close enough, the cat will pounce, usually clutching the jugular in their powerful jaws or a vicious bite to the base of the skull.
The Pumas main prey source are ungulates, or hoofed animals, such as deer and elk but they will also prey on many other mammals found in their home ranges. Other prey items may include pigs, capybaras, peccaries, raccoons, and hares. They typically do not consume their prey all at once, and are known to cache, or store, their prey by covering it with leaves or grass to cover it and return to it at a later time.
Pumas are primarily solitary animals and males establish their own home ranges that vary in size from 30 to 125 square miles, they will usually overlap with at least 2 females within this region.
Courtship and mating occurs throughout the year, but is concentrated from December to March in northern latitudes. A female Puma can come into estrus any time of the year and lasts about nine days. Females usually give birth every other year.
Female Pumas care for and nurse their young until they are about a year old. The young are born helpless and are protected by the mother in a sheltered area until they are big enough to roam when they begin to learn and practice hunting skills. The newborn Pumas have spots, which may help them blend in with grass, brush, and dappled sunlight. These spots begin to find around 6 months of age.
The Puma’s hind legs are larger and more muscular than their front legs to give them great jumping power. They are powerful cats with the ability to leap up to 18 feet from the ground into a tree. They are also good swimmers though they are not commonly associated with water.
Pumas are considered the largest of the small cat species. Big cats include African Lions, Tigers, Leopards and the America’s largest cat – the Jaguar.
While the big cats are known for their roars and other strong vocalizations – Pumas usually make softer calls such as whistles, purrs, growls and hisses – similar to those sounds made by domestic cats, though they are known for their screams.
In North America, Pumas are considered very wary of people. Since 1890 there have been less than 100 attacks on humans and encountering these rather elusive animals in their native habitat is considered very rare.
Pumas are sometimes known as Panthers – a term typically used to refer to cats that have solid-colored coats.
The animal often referred to as a Black Panther is not a Puma (or Panther) at all. Black Panthers are actually Jaguars or sometimes Leopards with an all black coat, in addtion to their black spots.
The Florida Panther is one of 30 subspecies of the Puma and the only known breeding population of Puma in the eastern United States. In 1967, the Department of the Interior listed the Florida Panther as an endangered subspecies.
Historically, this subspecies occurred throughout the southeastern United States from Arkansas and Louisiana eastward. Today, the Florida Panther is found in a single breeding population in southern Florida near the Big Cypress National Preserve. As few as 200 of these isolated animals may remain in South Florida.
Conservation efforts for the Florida Panther included the introduction of Texas mountain lions to southern Florida in the late 1990s, in an effort to combat inbreeding in the Florida panther population. In general, the effort was considered a success, as the Texas-Florida crosses introduced new genetic material and increased the average survival of the endangered Panther population.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation
San Diego Zoo
University of Georgia’s Savanna River Ecology Laboratory
University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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