Blane Klemek: Thoughts on the life and history of the bald eagle
About two months ago I began watching a bald eagle incubating her eggs on a live video feed called “Eagle Cam” on Minnesota DNR’s web site.
I enjoyed watching the eagle sitting peacefully on her eggs, keeping them warm. I looked forward to the day when the eggs would inevitably hatch. Or would they? I recall one especially cold day when the eagle left her nest and did not return for what I thought was too long a period of time for the fragile eggs to be left exposed to the cold and wind. But who am I to say? I’m no eagle, what do I know. But such is life, and the way of Nature. The eggs, as it turned out, were unviable. For whatever reason the eggs did not hatch and would, therefore, never hatch. Pay a visit to “Eagle Cam” today and you will see an abandoned nest with a lone egg inside. Posted below the live video feed are these words: “You are watching live video of a Twin Cities eagle nest. Three eggs were laid in the nest sometime around the first week in January 2013. The average incubation time for American bald eagles is 35 days. Unfortunately, the weather got cold, the temperature fell below zero several times during these 35 days, and it became apparent the eggs will not hatch. The final egg will likely break apart like the first two did.” “This pair of eagles might try again to lay eggs this year or another pair might come along and use the nest. We just don’t know for sure. Based on the previous 3 year history of this nest, these and/or other birds will hang around all year and will continue to allow us a view into their majestic, mysterious and fascinating world.” Indeed, the bald eagle has come a long way from the time of the colonists, to DDT, to today. A long way. On June 20, 1782, the bald eagle was selected to grace the Great Seal of these United States. The bird was chosen because of its strength, majesty, appearance, and long life. The bird also symbolized unlimited freedom and authority. But it wasn’t until 1787 that the bald eagle was officially adopted as America’s national emblem. By this time several states had already incorporated the bird into their own coat of arms. As fitting as the bald eagle seems to be in representing our country’s principles, not all people who were originally involved in its selection agreed that the bird was the right critter for the job. Benjamin Franklin was an outspoken opponent of the bird. He wrote of the bald eagle: “I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him... Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest... of America.” Franklin’s choice was the wild turkey, which, for those of you knowledgeable of this gallinaceous bird, is well aware of the species’ virtues. Besides, as Franklin argued, one can eat a turkey. Nonetheless, the bald eagle prevailed in spite of Franklin’s dissent. Surprisingly, even the esteemed John J. Audubon sided with Franklin’s account of the bald eagle. The bald eagle is native only to North America (another of the many reasons for its selection as our national symbol). The bird’s scientific name, (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), when broken down means “sea eagle with a white head” or, in other words, white-headed sea eagle. “Halo” means sea, “aeetos” means eagle, and “leucos” translates white. The common name, “bald,” doesn’t always mean hairless either. In zoological terms, bald means “white” or “having white feathers or markings on the head.” As fierce as the bald eagle’s appearance is – armed with weaponry such as sharp talons and a strong bill – the bird is an opportunist by nature, often stealing fish from ospreys and feasting on animal carcasses. Not being a specialist is an enormous benefit for such a large bird. The eagle’s scavenging enables the bird to survive during times when prey is scarce. Dead and dying fish and deer carcasses are very important food sources for bald eagles throughout its range – especially during the wintertime. Today, bald eagles are common once again in Minnesota. No other state in the lower 48 has more eagles than in Minnesota. The large raptors are also nesting in areas throughout their historical range, where, not too many years ago, they were absent – the Red River valley, the Twin Cities, Washington D.C., and many other places, too – for us to see and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors. BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org