For the Birds Radio Program: Eagle Courtship

Original Air Date: April 5, 1989

The rituals of eagle courtship bring to mind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

Northland Bald Eagles have been back in their romantic mode since February, cartwheeling through the skies like Arthur Dent and Fenchurch in the fourth book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. These aerial maneuvers are believed to help cement the pair bond, though cement is an awfully heavy metaphor for the incredible lightness of being of Bald Eagles.

In Wisconsin and Minnesota Bald Eagles begin their courtship in February or early March, though this year’s cold spells may have cooled their ardor for a while. They mate for life, and reuse the same nest year after year. Established pairs must make a few repairs and add on to the old nest—some nests have been worked on for as long as 35 years, and end up weighing 2 tons. For the most part, they build in a living tree or on a cliff—apparently so the steadily increasing weight of the nest will be supported for a long time. Eagles have been known to live for over 48 years, and definitely build for the future.

Eagles are devoted mates and parents. The bulk of their diet year round is fish—they can catch their own, but they also eat dead fish washed ashore, and often steal the catch from Osprey. Eagles also eat just about any other dead animals they find, and so are often seen on roadsides with ravens or vultures picking at roadkills. They eat ducks and other water birds, too.

Bald Eagles were once much more abundant than they are now. Shooting, habitat loss, lead poisoning, and pesticides and heavy metal contamination have taken an enormous toll. Laws ostensibly protect them from shooting now, though criminals still kill and wound many every year. And since D.D.T. was banned for most uses in the United States in 1972, Bald Eagles have been able to successfully nest again near many bodies of water. Eagles that nest on the Great Lakes are still in trouble, though–one likely cause is poisoning by heavy metals like mercury and cadmium, which last forever in elemental form and contaminate Great Lakes fish. Most people don’t worry much about fish as long as they don’t eat too many, but so far the D.N.R. has been unable to figure out a way to inform eagles about the safe fish consumption guidelines.

In spite of the noble appearance of the Bald Eagle, Benjamin Franklin was not the only person who frowned upon this species. Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote, “On June 20, 1782, our forefathers adopted as our national emblem the bald eagle, or ‘American eagle,’ as it was called, a fine looking bird, but one hardly worth the distinction. Its carrion-feeding habits, its timid and cowardly behavior, and its predatory attacks on the smaller and weaker osprey hardly inspire respect and certainly do not exemplify the best in American character…The wild turkey was suggested, but such a vain and pompous fowl would have been a worse choice. Eagles have always been looked upon as emblems of power and valor, so our national bird may still be admired by those who are not familiar with its habits.”

Bent wrote that in 1937, when it probably did seem pretty silly to choose a national emblem for its looks alone. In 1989 we know that appearances are far more important than substance—and we have a vice president to prove it.

(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”