The king of the sky is here for the viewingWORTHINGTON — Spring can’t come soon enough. I like the saying that “April showers bring May flowers,” but I’ve seen it snow plenty of times in April. One of the sights and sounds of March and April is the return of the American Bald Eagle as it migrates north.
By: Scott Rall, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Spring can’t come soon enough. I like the saying that “April showers bring May flowers,” but I’ve seen it snow plenty of times in April.
One of the sights and sounds of March and April is the return of the American Bald Eagle as it migrates north. I have seen more bald eagles this spring than in any other year I can remember. There were two of them sitting on the ice in front of my office at Rall Financial Services on the shores of Lake Okabena a few days back.
It really doesn’t matter how many times I see one, they are always very spectacular. It wasn’t so long ago that seeing a bald eagle was a rare treat.
In the late 20th century they were so scarce they were listed on the federal list of endangered species. In the 18th century the population was estimated to be 300,000 to 500,000. By 1950, there were only 412 nesting pairs left in the continental United States.
Illegal shooting was considered to be the highest direct cause of mortality on both mature and immature bald eagles, according to a report completed in 1978. Other causes included loss of nesting sites and the chemical DDT, which softened the egg shells of many birds and resulted in failed nesting efforts. It is no longer used.
I don’t think there is much more trouble you can get yourself into than to get caught shooting a bald eagle. This is just fine with me. The fact of the matter is, not only are they protected in the wild; in most cases it is illegal to even possess one in captivity. There are a small number of bald eagles legally owned for religious American Indian ceremonies.
The story does get better. In 1995, our national bird was moved from the endangered species list and moved to the category of threatened. Just a few years back — in 2007 — the bald eagle was finally removed from that list as well. This just goes to prove that even when humans screw things up initially, not all human intervention ends up badly. This is one of the better success stories.
Bald eagles become mature at about 4 to 5 years of age. This is about the time their heads turn white. The males and females look exactly alike except the female will be 25 percent larger than the male.
Eagles have a very unusual courtship ritual in that the male and female will lock talons together in flight and freefall toward earth, separating just before they hit the ground. They both build the nest and take turns incubating the eggs. The nests are used over and over and can get to be up to 15 feet in width. Bald eagle pairs usually mate for life, but if one member of the pair dies — or doesn’t return — the survivor will find a new mate.
Nature has even provided the instinct that if two eagles are unsuccessful after several years, they will split up and find new mates to see if that fixes the problem. Eagles will actually nest on the ground when in areas where no trees are present. They lay between one and three eggs, but it is rare that all of the hatchling will make it to flight. The eggs are about three inches long.
The bald eagle is at the top of the food chain, but will eat just about anything. They will eat small mammals and birds. Rabbits, raccoons, beavers and muskrats all fit this menu. Other birds can also be on an eagle’s menu, including ducks, coots, grebes and other water birds.
I have seen videos where a large eagle took down a small white-tailed deer fawn, and recently I saw a series of still photos taken with a big lens of an eagle catching and eating a pheasant. They will also scavenge on the carcasses of animals both big and small.
Bald eagles have even been seen eating the carcasses of dead whales. When fishing in Canada, it is very likely you will see an eagle eating off of the gut pie of freshly cleaned fish that were eaten for a noon shore lunch. Seafood can do the trick if that is what is available. Crabs, reptiles and other amphibians can satisfy an eagle’s appetite.
It is great to see the national symbol of the United States making the kind of comeback the American Bald Eagle has. Take a drive around a few lakes in the area and you will most likely get to enjoy one of the greatest signs of spring. They usually pass through here, and by June an eagle sighting in southwest Minnesota will be less common.
Many cool animals pass through our region but do not stay. Now is the time to take that drive in the great outdoors and take a moment to truly appreciate all that Mother Nature has sent our way — even if it is only for a little while each spring.
Scott Rall is the Daily Globe’s outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.