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Blane Klemek: The amazing beauty of observing eagles

I recently enjoyed another visit with my friends belonging to the organization Adventures in Lifelong Learning. This time we met in Bagley. We shared stories and we talked about bird songs and calls, about our late spring, and about other species of wildlife and observations. I could tell that everyone present shared in the joy of living in the Northland.

Among the many species of birds that we talked about was the bald eagle. This noble species of bird, our national emblem, once rare, once endangered, is now ubiquitous, though no less a treat to observe. So common they are today that we’re just as apt to see them in the Red River Valley nesting in tall cottonwoods along the Red River of the North and Red Lake River, as we are in observing them nesting amongst red pine and white pine forests further east.

In fact, we now can log onto the Minnesota DNR website’s “EagleCam” web page and watch a pair of bald eagles caring for their newly hatched chicks. It’s fascinating to watch the female eagle feeding bite-size bits of food to the youngster from prey items that its mate brings to the nest. The tenderness and care that she doles out to each of her chicks as she feeds their hungry mouths is endearing.

So, what is it about observing an eagle that so captivates us? No matter how common they are, seeing an eagle in flight or perched upon a stout limb of an old snag tree will turn our heads every time.

Bald eagles are the poster bird of what sound wildlife management and legislation can accomplish. The banning of the pesticide DDT in this country was paramount to their marvelous comeback, as was the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Their protection and ultimate expansion into former ranges has given us many opportunities to view bald eagles.

Except for Alaska, Minnesota and Wisconsin provide the best habitat for nesting bald eagles. Thus, nowhere else in the lower 48 are there more bald eagles. In fact, it is estimated that well over 800 nesting pairs (probably closer to 1,000) raise their young throughout Minnesota. But it wasn’t that long ago that Minnesota’s bald eagle population was estimated at only 50 nesting pairs.  

The bald eagle is a noble looking bird of prey. It is no small wonder that this bird was chosen as our national emblem. Its strong features, large size, powerful flight, longevity — not to mention its imposing weaponry — are symbolic to our nation.

Perhaps one of the most startling characteristics of an eagle is its wingspan. Anywhere from six to seven 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.

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 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. 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 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. But where no suitable trees are available, the ground or a cliff will suffice, too.

And while it’s not rare to see bald eagles during the winter here in the Northland, most eagles migrate to where food is more plentiful. For example, eagles from our region typically winter at roosting sites along the Mississippi River near the cities of Red Wing and Wabasha, Minnesota. Many of these same eagles make the annual trek northward returning to the same nests, only to add a few more sticks, establish pair bonds, and raise their chicks.

Indeed, whether a pair of bald eagles is perched on a stately pine tree in Itasca State Park or nesting in a mighty cottonwood tree along the Red River of the North, bald eagles are abundant once again and as beautiful as they have always been as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@