The only thing spookier than bumps in the night? A forest stock-still, silent and without any flit or flutter of life.
Not so long ago, that eerie scene was becoming a reality across North America. Birds were disappearing, and as their numbers dwindled to near-extinction, the forests and waterfronts went quiet.
This month, we bring you tales of birds that almost vanished forever — only to make a miraculous comeback and once again grace the bluffs and coastlines that edge the Tennessee Valley.
Throughout the 1700s, the impressively sized bald eagle was prolific along lakes, rivers and marshes across the U.S. Then, following WWII, populations began to plummet as a result of illegal hunting and the pesticide DDT, which weakened the birds' eggshells, causing them to break during incubation. By 1963, the number of nesting bald eagles in the U.S had dwindled from 100,000 to 487, landing the animal on the Endangered Species Act upon its enactment in 1973.
Thanks to that protection, and to the banning of DDT in 1972, these days, the bald eagle is considered a conservation success story. In 2004 its federal status was officially downgraded from "endangered" to a "species of least concern."
Today, there are an estimated 69,000 nesting bald eagles in the U.S., with 300-500 eagles visiting Tennessee each winter.
Where to spot: Chickamauga Lake or Watts Bar Lake, from late October through February.
The snowy egret's elegant white plumage has caused this bird to be both revered and, in the late 1800s, over-hunted for use of its feathers in ladies' hats. Populations across the continent were reduced by 95 percent within just a few decades. But in 1918, with the passage of the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protected migratory birds across continents, the snowy egret did more than start to recover — it expanded its original range, moving further north in the U.S.
The snowy egret is federally listed as a species of least concern, but is state-listed in Tennessee as "in need of management." While rare in East Tennessee, it does occasionally make an appearance, and may be spotted more regularly in West Tennessee.
Where to spot: Little Elder Island; Duck River Unit of Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge; and Reelfoot Lake State Park, from April through October.
The peregrine falcon's range once covered most of North America, and included 25 known nesting sites in Tennessee. But, like the bald eagle, populations were decimated by both illegal shooting and DDT, which affected the falcons' eggs like the eagles', causing them to break before becoming ready to hatch. By the 1960s, the eastern U.S. population of peregrine falcons had been extirpated, and the bird was one of the first animals listed on the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
While federal protection and prohibition of DDT gave the falcon a fighting chance, what really bolstered its numbers was recovery projects such as The Peregrine Fund, established in 1974, to help restore the species through captive breeding and releases. Over the past 40 years, more than 6,000 peregrine falcons have been successfully released in North America. Today, there are two known nesting sites in Tennessee.
In 1999, the peregrine was federally de-listed as an endangered species. However, it remains endangered in the Tennessee.
Where to spot: Alum Cave Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from late October through early October.
While the whooping crane is still making strides to recover, its story is already remarkable. Once widespread across northern U.S. marshes, beginning in the late 1800s, the species was decimated by hunting and habitat loss. In 1941, in the U.S., approximately only 20 whooping cranes remained in the wild.
Thanks to intensive conservation efforts, including one Wisconsin-based captive breeding and release project that conditioned fledglings to follow an aircraft guiding their first migration, the whooping crane is moving away from extinction.
In 2008, there were 387 cranes in the wild. Now, there are 600. While the bird is still listed as federally endangered, populations continue to show a promising comeback.
Where to spot: Sightings in Tennessee are extremely rare, but the best bet is Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, from October through February.