The majestic bald eagle is a common sight along the waterways of the Old Northwest Territory. Learn more about how you can find these proud symbols of our nation – right in our own backyards.
In 1782, when Congress voted to adopt The Great Seal of the United States, the central element of the design, the American bald eagle, promptly came to be recognized as our fledgling country’s national bird – unofficially, that is. It wasn’t until 1787 that Congress officially adopted it as America’s national emblem.
It is, indeed, a fitting symbol. As the only eagle unique to North America, it represents strength, perseverance and fidelity. With its dark brown body, striking white head and tail, and distinctive yellow beak and feet, it is immediately recognizable, whether perched in a tree or soaring on thermals high above.
The proximity of major rivers and lakes, which provide eagles with plenty of fish, their main food source, means that residents of the Old Northwest Territory have many opportunities to view these majestic birds. Beginning in mid to late January, several organizations offer tours to visit wintering communities of eagles, and others host special bald eagle weekends. But spotting one of these awesome creatures just by chance is becoming more commonplace, even in areas where no major rivers flow.
“They do come through here during migration,” says Sara Denham, wildlife resource manager, McHenry County Conservation District, Harvard. “This year, people walking along the Fox River have reported seeing one. And we have some bald eagles that have taken up residence. Two adults have built a nest in Glacial Park, and just across the county line, in Antioch, a pair has nested on the south end of Grass Lake for the past three years.”
During the fall, she adds, bald eagles were spotted at Illinois Beach State Park.
“The Fox River is an abundant resource for the food they eat,” says Bill Glaser, wildlife biologist, Forest Preservation District of Kane County, Geneva. “It only partially freezes during the winter, and in other spots, the ice breaks up and refreezes as the temperatures fluctuate.”
One nesting pair in Kane County caused quite a stir with the State Police, after building a nest in Mooseheart, a private, 1,000-acre community and school for children and teens in need, which was founded in 1913 by the Moose fraternal organization.
“It’s quite exciting that they’re here,” says John Duerr, a member of the Kane County Audubon Society. “It’s private property, so you can’t just hike out there, though there are people following the eagles closely. But the nest is only 60 or 70 yards from Randall Road, and it’s clearly visible from passing cars. People were pulling over and blocking traffic to get a look. The State Police had to shoo everyone away and post ‘No Stopping’ signs.”
The number of eagles in the Midwest has increased over recent years, and Duerr isn’t surprised that some have chosen to make the northwest suburbs their home. “They’ve wintered here along the Fox River for years, so they’ve become acclimated to the suburban setting,” he says. “There’s food and good tall pines for nesting. It’s a major reflection of the strength of the habitats here.”
The Mooseheart nest was started by the eagles in 2009, and this year, the parents successfully hatched and raised two eaglets. Duerr speculates that this pair could be the same one that built a nest in Carpentersville in 2007 that’s since been abandoned.
Bald eagles have wintered along the Fox near the Illinois River for about 10 years. “During our Christmas Bird Count, going from Aurora to just north of St. Charles, 20 eagles were counted,” says Duerr. “People may have seen the same birds, so we’re guessing it was more like 12 or 14. I’m sure we’ll see even more as time goes on. Credit goes to planning by the Forest Preserve District, and stewardship by folks like those at Mooseheart.”
“There are more eagles nesting in this area than ever before,” says Don Goerne, president, Starved Rock Audubon Society, Ottawa, Ill. “Ten years ago, we had very few nests, which means the birds we were seeing were migratory, down from farther north. Now, we have a mixture of nesting and wintering birds.”
Dianne Moller is the founder of Hoo’s Woods, a raptor education and rehabilitation center in Milton, Wis. “We’re the third-highest populated state for bald eagles,” she says. “There are between 1,100 and 1,200 nesting pairs here in Wisconsin.”
Moller’s been working with raptors for 15 years, and presents educational programs throughout Wisconsin. She’s noticed that bald eagles are ranging farther inland, away from water sources.
“People have reported bald eagles in Janesville, at Traxler Park,” she says. “You just have to look for them. They aren’t picky eaters, and they’ll go 10 to 15 miles or more off river to forage.”
Terrence Ingram has a true devotion to the bald eagle and has studied them for more than 50 years. He became interested back in the early 1960s, while teaching math and physics at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “I studied the birds in Cassville [Wis.], and I counted 155 eagles on an Audubon Christmas Bird Count,” he explains. “I was just amazed to find the birds there. I had taken an ornithology class at the university, and bald eagles were never mentioned as even being in the area. Since then, it’s been a passion of mine. I’ve even climbed into aeries [raptors’ nests] and banded nestlings. I’m 70 now, so I can’t do that anymore.”
What he does, instead, is head up Eagle Nature Foundation, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving bald eagle habitats and food sources; locating and protecting eagle roosting sites; and bringing awareness of the bald eagle to as many people as possible. It’s located near the state line in Apple River, Ill., and Ingram has served as president since 1995.
As a member of the Southwestern Wisconsin Audubon Club, Ingram helped to organize the nation’s first Bald Eagle Days, held at Cassville in 1967. “We were able to make it an annual event in 1970, and other cities have copied it,” he says. “There are now about 55 bald eagle events across the country.”
“The trees, the bluffs – the whole area, really – offer great nesting sites,” says Eleanor Mumm, tourism coordinator for Cassville. “They winter here, too, because the power plants and Lock and Dam 10 keep the water from freezing.”
This year’s event was Jan. 29-30 and featured educational programs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Cassville High School, led by Moller; Suzanne and Merv Broten from Coulee Rehab Center; Kay Neuman from SOAR; and birding author Steve Betchkal. On Saturday and Sunday, volunteers with spotting telescopes were on hand at Riverside Park, to answer questions and help visitors to locate the birds.
Since 2004, when Mumm became involved, Bald Eagle Days has attracted nearly 300 visitors who sign up and attend the programs. But many more come on their own, and just sit by the river to watch the birds, she says, and there’s no way to count them.
“Locals can kind of take the eagles for granted, because we see them all the time,” she says. “But I’ve lived here all of my life, and when I spot one, I’m still just in awe. We won the 2006 Governor’s Award for ‘Putting Wisconsin on the Map’ as a premier destination for eagle watching. They’re a part of our town.”
In Illinois, Ingram hosts four-hour bus tours over three weekends, taking participants to five active nesting sites and wintering communities. “We follow along the Mississippi, starting in Galena, and go through Dubuque and over to Bellevue,” Ingram says. “You’ll see them flying, perching, fishing, sitting on the ice. You may even see some in nests, if you have good enough binoculars.”
Ingram’s tours leave at 8 a.m. from the Stoney Creek Inn in Galena, on Feb. 12 and Feb. 26. “I’m a certified Master Bird Bander, and I’ve directed my own training camps for banders, both in Canada and Wisconsin,” he says. “I’ve probably seen more bald eagles than just about anyone, and edited more materials about eagles than most would even want to read. So, besides just seeing bald eagles, folks on my bus tour get the history of the bald eagle and its threats, life story, see its habitat, as well as nests and roosts. They get an education.”
Goerne and the Starved Rock Audubon Society each year hold Bald Eagle Watch Weekend in Utica, Ill., a joint venture with the Illinois Audubon Society, Starved Rock Lodge and the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center.
“We have activities in two locations,” Goerne explains. “Exhibitors at the lodge include groups like World Bird Sanctuary, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and vendors with nature-related items. At the Visitor Center, at various times during the weekend, the Illinois Raptor Center will give a live raptor demonstration, a Native American Dancer will perform, and a make-and-take bird-feeder workshop will run. A shuttle between the two locations is available for $1 a ride.”
Powerful scopes will be set up on the Center’s balcony for eagle viewing, staffed by Audubon Society volunteers. Held since 1997, the annual event draws between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors.
Also, during January and February, Starved Rock Lodge holds Bald Eagle Trolley Tours, which include a meal, each Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, except for holidays.
While a significant number of people always come, unfortunately, the number of eagles that attend these special weekends can vary. “It’s hard to know what to expect sometimes,” says Ingram. “We’ve counted as many as 450 eagles in four hours, but not in the past few years. Typically, we can count anywhere from 30 to 80.”
The most important variable seems to be the weather. “We’ve had as many as 130, when the river was frozen,” says Goerne. “If the river is frozen, the eagles come down to the lock and dam, where there’s open water and they can fish. If it isn’t frozen, we don’t get as many. Last year, we had about 30.”
The American bald eagle was close to extinction in 1972, when the use of the pesticide DDT was finally banned. Its harmful effects were known as far back as the early 1960s. The landmark Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973; the bald bird was added to the list of Endangered Species in 1976, and since then has made an amazing comeback.
It was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007, despite the concerns of many naturalists who say that the bird and its habitat are still in danger. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act make it illegal to shoot an American bald eagle, or to interfere with its breeding or feeding behaviors. The Migratory Bird Act protects bald eagles, their eggs, nests and feathers. The eagle remains on certain state endangered species lists.
Despite its hardships, with the help of stewards, activists and educators, including those who put on fantastic events, the American bald eagle remains a vibrant and natural symbol of freedom, strength and endurance. ❚Eagle Facts
Juvenile bald eagles are mottled brown and white. They don’t reach maturity, or develop their white heads and tails, until age four or five.
In most species of birds, the male is much brighter and more distinctive in color than the female; not so with bald eagles. Adult males and females both have blackish-brown bodies, white heads and tail feathers, and bright yellow feet and bills.
The female tends to be taller than the male, at about three feet. Wingspan ranges are seven feet for females and six feet for males. An adult typically weighs between 10 and 14 pounds.
An eagle’s bones are hollow; its talons, beak and feathers are made of keratin; one eagle has about 7,000 feathers.
Eagles are known for their amazing eyesight, which is necessary: They can reach altitudes of over 10,000 feet, and achieve top speeds of 80-100 miles an hour, when flying level.
Fish make up the eagle’s main diet, but it also eats carrion, birds such as pheasant and small mammals such as squirrels. This bird isn’t above stealing, and sometimes observers witness an aerial food battle, as one tries to take another’s fish.
Although a strong swimmer, an eagle hunts smaller fish that feed near the surface, normally nabbing it while barely getting its feet wet.
You don’t have to bring in your schnauzer or cocker spaniel when you spot a hunting eagle; its lifting capacity is about four pounds.
Eagles mate for life, remaining together until one dies. The female lays within 10 days of mating. A clutch is between one and three eggs, which are dull white with pale brown splotches, about 2.5 inches long and 2 inches wide. If there are three chicks, usually only one or two survive.
Incubation takes about 35 days, with the male and female sharing duties. Afterward, the male provides the majority of food for his growing family.
An eaglet adds one pound of body weight every four or five days. By 10 weeks, it is nearly as large as its parents, and is ready for its first flight at 13 weeks.
An adult eats 5 to 10 percent of its body weight, but just like humans, the “teenagers” – that’s eight weeks old – demand food constantly!
Eagles live between 20 and 30 years in the wild.
Eagles live near bodies of water in Canada and Alaska, and are found scattered across the United States and even down into Mexico.
The population in the lower 48 states increases in January and February, when many eagles living farther north migrate here for the winter.
In the 1700s, up to 500,000 bald eagles made the United States their home. By the 1960s, due to widespread use of the pesticide DDT, fewer than 500 nesting pairs remained. If the DDT didn’t kill the birds or make them sterile, it resulted in their egg shells being so thin that they cracked under the weight of the adult eagle. DDT was banned in 1972.
Placed on the Endangered Species List in 1976, the American bald eagle population is now estimated at 5,000 nesting pairs in the United States, and about 70,000 total in North America (including Canada and Alaska). This is only an estimate; no one really has an exact count.
Unlike other birds, mated eagles tend to make their nests their permanent homes, returning each year, if they migrate.
So, eagles typically can’t return to the exact nests they hatched from. But they do seem to have “site fidelity,” a strong attraction to return to the area where they were born. Depending on the population density of other eagles and available habitat, they may start their own nests within a few miles of where they were born.
Sitting atop the food chain, the eagle’s main predator is humans.
Causes of Death
Lead poisoning, from ingesting lead from shot or fishing tackle present in their food
Power line electrocution
Injuries from automobiles
Loss of habitat
Sources: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Defenders of Wildlife; Eagle Nature Foundation