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Blane Klemek column: Bald eagles soar in Minnesota

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Blane Klemek column: Bald eagles soar in Minnesota
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

You will find plenty of information about the bald eagle on the Minnesota DNR Web site. One particularly interesting piece, titled "Bald Eagle History -The Bald Eagle Story", states:

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"On June 20, 1782, the founding fathers of the United States of America selected the bald eagle as the national bird. Symbolic of the country itself, the bald eagle has since gone through some trying times. It has been poisoned, trapped, shot, killed for bounty and otherwise blown out of our skies by people who felt an eagle belonged on a dollar bill rather than atop a white pine tree in northern Minnesota."

Like many predatory birds and animals in America, including hawks, owls, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions and others, the bald eagle was, and still is to some people, viewed as a scourge of lesser wildlife, especially those creatures that humankind hold in high regard - namely those species of wildlife pursued by hunters and fishers.

Just recently while talking with an elderly rural landowner, I was told in no uncertain terms that eagles and other predators should be poisoned, shot and eliminated. For shock value, the gentleman definitely delivered, but he was in fact dead serious. I tried to understand his perspective, but couldn't quite get there.

His reasoning, though grounded in logic, was that a world without predators would naturally mean a world with plentiful game and other wildlife. Missing in this sentiment, however, was the not-so-evident truth: healthy and functioning ecosystems are those systems replete with both predator and prey, not to mention abundant and suitable habitat for both to exist in - together - as Nature intended.

With respect to the bald eagle, in the early 1960s, which isn't that long ago, biologists estimated that the breeding population in the continental United States was only around 417 nesting pairs. At the time, Minnesota had just 50 nesting pairs of bald eagles. By 1972 the pesticide DDT was banned from use. Coupled with protective legislation, as well as passing the important legislation known as the Endangered Species Act the following year, the bald eagle's slow climb to recovery began in earnest.

Today, after being officially removed from the endangered species list, the population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, including Washington D.C., is more than 11,000 nesting pairs. Following de-listing, bald eagles will remain under the protection of many state regulations and the 1940 federal law - the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Although far fewer in number today than the estimated 500,000 birds believed to have been present when the Mayflower was moored off Plymouth Rock, the bald eagle's recovery throughout North America, especially south of Canada, is no less historic. In Minnesota alone, bald eagles are virtually everywhere.

To quote again from the aforementioned story: "Eagles have expanded their range from northern Minnesota and now nest in southeastern Minnesota. In 1988, they even began nesting along the Minnesota River Valley in western Minnesota for the first time in over 100 years. In 2007, it was estimated the Minnesota population is over 2,300 pairs!"

Of interest is the bald eagle's preferred choice of prey. Contrary to the often held belief that bald eagles commonly prey on everything from ruffed grouse to deer, bald eagles prefer instead a diet of fish over most other prey items. It's no accident that eagles are frequently observed nesting near or perched in large trees overlooking lakes and rivers.

Yet, bald eagles are also equally willing to scavenge for meals, especially when prey is scarce. 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.

The white head and white tail feathers of a bald eagle do not become visible until the bird reaches about four or five 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 lifetime. 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, too. Because the adults add materials to the nest each year, a nest can reach weights of up to two tons and can obtain a diameter of nine to 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. In places where trees are unavailable, bald eagles are known to build their nests on the ground overlooking cliffs.

Exceedingly abundant at one time, nearly extirpated at another, and now recovered and doing well, the bald eagle's future looks bright. The large raptors are nesting in areas throughout their historical range where, not too many years ago, they were absent.

In recent years, nesting pairs have returned along the Potomac River near Washington D.C., in addition to our own Red River Valley up and down the Red River of the North. How fitting it is: that the bald eagle, our national emblem, is soaring above fields and forests and valleys 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 bklemek@yahoo.com.

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