The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported this week that the number of nesting pairs of bald eagles in the state has increased by 28 percent from the year 2000, with a total of 872 pairs found in a spring 2005 survey. Full story By comparison, the estimated total number of nesting pairs in the entire lower 48 United States in 1963 was 417.
I have been privileged to be a witness to this dramatic comeback. The year I was born, 1967, was the year the bald eagle was placed on the federal endangered species list. I grew up as most children did at the time, seeing images of bald eagles everywhere as the symbol of our country but never having seen a real, live eagle. I was nearly twenty years old before I saw my first bald eagles in the wild, along the Mississippi River near Wabasha, MN. I was instantly in awe of their enormous wingspan, and the beauty of their soaring flight. Majestic is not too strong a word to use when describing this bird.
I started seeing bald eagles more often in the early 1990's. My job in fisheries management took me to lakes and rivers in east central Minnesota, in prime bald eagle habitat. I lived near a large wildlife management area where eagles often fished in the shallow impoundments of the Sunrise River. I had one dead tree I called the "Eagle Tree" because, whenever I drove by it, more likely than not I would see an eagle perched in its branches. Still, I considered a bald eagle to be a rare treat to encounter. One Thanksgiving day, in the mid 1990's, the family was gathered at my grandma's home on Rush Lake. That day I counted over seventy eagles sitting on islands of ice and in the branches of trees on Heron Island, a great blue heron rookery. I had been spending nearly every Thanksgiving there since 1975, and had never seen such a spectacle.
Today where I live, eagles are a common if not daily sight. This time of year I suspect a lot of them are migrating through, following the streams and rivers of the St. Croix watershed. I have seen bald eagles throughout the winter, however, so they are not all migrants. I do not know where the nearest active eagle nest is to Sand Creek, but I would like to find out. I do know of nest locations in other areas; one eagle nest on Chisago Lake has been there for at least ten years and is considered a point of reference for anglers on the lake; often you hear of fish biting "by the eagle's nest".
Fortunately people seem to have a bit more respect and tolerance for bald eagles than in the past, and more so than for birds of prey such as great gray owls. I have heard hardly any reports of people deliberately killing bald eagles around here. On a couple of occasions I have had bald eagles eyeing my chickens, but with their large wingspans it would be unlikely that an eagle could maneuver into and take off from the enclosed chicken yard with a Rhode Island Red in its talons. Eagles around here seem to prefer carrion such as road killed deer, of which there is a steady supply. This situation sometimes puts eagles in danger of becoming road kill themselves; eagles take a long time to get airborne after takeoff, and if a carcass is close to the road the eagle sometimes must fly in the path of cars. I once passed about six feet under a flying eagle in my Honda Accord. The wing span was wider than the car.
I don't know exactly what it is about bald eagles, or how to describe the feeling of awe I get every time I see one. I often utter the much overused adjective "Cool!", but that does not seem to do it justice. Perhaps there are no words that do.