For the Birds Radio Program: Bald Eagle
January is Bald Eagle Watch Month in many spots along the Mississippi River. Our national emblem has long been admired for its proud, tough, and unyielding appearance, thanks to its huge size, forbidding talons, and cold, steely gaze. It was the eagle’s appearance that led John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to select it as our national emblem. Ben Franklin was more interested in economics than military might, but even if he was looking for a symbol of power and strength, he reckoned that the eagle wasn’t such a good choice. His dislike for the eagle was personal—he said it was a bird of very bad moral character, who made its living by sharping and robbing. Franklin wasn’t a religious man, so perhaps he didn’t consider that most philosophers believe birds can’t do anything but God’s will, and as the father of a multitude of illegitimate children, Franklin’s qualifications as an arbiter of moral behavior are questionable, but he was probably correct in claiming that the eagle is not a good symbol of strength of purpose. Eagles are quite tough enough to defend themselves, and occasionally do steal food from other birds, but overall they are rather timid and try to avoid difficulties. They are just as happy eating dead, decaying fish as fresh ones, and are often seen along roadsides, usually in the vicinity of a ripe deer carcass.
Eagles were badly endangered during the 1960s and 1970s, but thanks to protection, the banning of DDT, and cleaning up lakes and rivers, they’ve staged a remarkable comeback. Thousands now pass over Hawk Ridge every fall, especially in October and November. In Wisconsin there are records of them attempting to nest in aspen trees as the number of eagles has reached or surpassed the number of suitable nest territories in areas where white pines are declining. As eagle numbers grow, they are spreading out and starting to nest farther and farther south, in more and more populated areas—last spring I even saw some nesting near Cleveland, Ohio. And as they’ve increased, they’ve become less wary of humans. One pair even built a nest close to the highway between Duluth and Two Harbors, and seems to ignore all the traffic, including people who stop for a better look. As they’ve increased and adapted to humans, eagles have become one of our more conspicuous birds. Virtually every time I drive on a country road, I spot one sitting in a tree or flying overhead. I’ve even had one poop on my car’s windshield as I drove along Highway 53 in Wisconsin. That’s a good road for eagles anytime. My brother-in-law Mike from Chicago saw the first Bald Eagle of his lifetime along Highway 53 last month when driving up to Duluth to celebrate Christmas. He was thrilled to see this enormous black bird with the gleaming white head and tail, and when it took off from the roadside, opening its wings to reveal the full seven-foot wingspan, the sight took his breath away. Ben Franklin may not have been impressed even in the low-tech 1700s, but I’m glad that even in the high-tech 2000s, the eagle still has some power over most humans’ imaginations.