Author and ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, whose words I have quoted in the past, wrote an interesting passage in his book, "Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey," about the bald eagle. He wrote: "On June 20, 1782, our forefathers adopted as our national emblem the bald eagle, or the 'American eagle' as it was called, a fine looking bird, but one hardly worthy of the distinction." It's telling of his disdain for the emblematic bird, as he continues to write, why he italicized the word "looking."
Bent justified the statement by pointing out that the bird is "timid" and of "cowardly behavior." He also reasoned that because the bird feeds on carrion and occasionally attacks other birds of prey, such as the osprey, (in order to steal their food I presume), bald eagles "...hardly inspire respect and certainly do not exemplify the best in American character."
He also suggested that a better choice would have been the golden eagle, "....a far nobler bird..." as he described it, but, adding further, "...is not strictly American." As well, the author made mention of Benjamin Franklin's suggestion of the wild turkey as the nation's emblem. Bent noted that choosing the wild turkey "...would have been a worse choice" because the bird is "...such a vain and pompous fowl..."
Even so, the author conceded that despite the bird's habits (evidently intended for those not familiar with said habits), "Its soaring flight, with its pure-white head and tail glistening in the sunlight, is really inspiring; and it adds grandeur to the scene as it sits in a dignified pose on some dead tree, its white head clearly visible against the dark green of the forest background."
While I agree with the author's latter statement, I disagree with him that the bald eagle was not a wise choice as an emblem of the United States of America. The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is a noble bird of prey; an opportunist, cunning, intelligent and a survivor. To me, it's no small wonder that the bird was eventually chosen as our national emblem. As Bent also explained, "...Eagles have always been looked upon as emblems of power and valor." Indeed.
Perhaps one of the most conspicuous features of an eagle, when in flight, is its wingspan. Anywhere from 6-to-7-and-a-half feet from wingtip to wingtip, the bald eagle commands the skies as it soars above the landscape. Weighing around 10 to 14 pounds (males weigh slightly less) and as long as three feet from beak to tail, bald eagles are certainly large enough to capture sizable prey.
Its preferred food, however, is fish. Eagles will readily swoop from a good lookout perch over a lake or river to capture unwary fish. Yet, they are also equally okay with scavenging for its meals. It is very common to see bald eagles along our roadways feeding on deer carcasses or other carrion. Bald eagles are also adept at stealing fish from ospreys or claiming a carcass from a mob of crows and ravens. Other prey includes waterfowl, such as ducks and geese.
The white head and white tail feathers of a bald eagle do not become visible until the bird reaches about 4 or 5 years old. Juveniles are brown, mottled with white plumage throughout. Many people, therefore, confuse young bald eagles with other species of hawks and eagles. It is often reported that golden eagles have been observed, when in fact, it was merely a juvenile bald eagle that was seen.
Adult bald eagles form lifelong pair bonds. Able to reach ages of 30 years old in the wild, a mated pair of eagles can raise many offspring over their lifetimes. Often returning to the same nest every spring, a pair will continue to add sticks and nest-building materials to their nest year after year.
The size of a bald eagle nest is worth noting. Because the adults add materials to the nest each year, a nest can reach weights of up to 4,000 pounds and a diameter of 9-10 feet. It takes a strong tree to support such a nest. Nests are usually built in large white pines and cottonwoods near lakes and rivers. But where no suitable trees are available, the ground or a cliff will suffice.
On a wilderness river fishing trip in Alaska, I saw firsthand how a pair of bald eagles raise their young in a treeless environment. After oaring our rafts to shore one afternoon so we could eat a lunch, we decided to take a hike and explore. The river's channel was deep, with high, sandy banks rising above us on each side.
Once we were on top of the bank, we noticed a pair of bald eagles circling overhead. It was at this time that we noticed a large and conspicuous mound of earth at the edge of the high bank some distance away. Investigating the strange structure, we soon learned that it was an active eagle nest. We approached it just close enough to see a single, half-grown eaglet sitting in the middle of the nest bowl.
It won't be long when most of the Northland's bald eagle population will migrate to where food is more plentiful. Many will end up spending the winter at roosting sites along the Mississippi River near Red Wing and Wabasha, Minn. But some birds, if weather conditions are favorable and food is available, will linger behind. Truly, the bald eagle, once an endangered species, now abundant, is deserving of its national status and admiration as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com