ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — There was a time, just a few decades ago, when it was rare to see a bald eagle in this area. Now, eagles are becoming so common that seeing one flying overhead or perched on a tree hardly seems like that big of a deal anymore.
“We’re literally seeing them every day,” said Ben Eckhoff, an area naturalist at Lake Carlos, Glendalough and Glacial Lakes state parks.
Although the bald eagle was adopted as our national symbol in 1782, it was so abundant at that time that it had no protection. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there may have been as many as 100,000 nesting eagles at that time.
However, until the early 1900s, eagles were often either sport hunted or shot as a potential threat to livestock. This, combined with a loss of habitat, caused eagle populations to plummet, and in 1940 Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act.
But the eagle still faced one of its biggest challenges in the next few decades as the pesticide DDT began to be used. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DDT washed into the water where it was absorbed by fish, which is one of the bald eagle’s main food sources. When eagles were poisoned with DDT, their eggshells became thin and were easily broken by a nesting eagle.
By 1963, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining in the United States. Then, in 1972, DDT was banned and the eagle began its road to recovery.
The last 10 years have really marked a tipping point where it’s becoming common to see eagles, Eckhoff said.
Back in 1978, bald eagles were listed as endangered in all but five of the lower 48 states, he said. One of those five states was Minnesota.
Since then, things have slowly turned around. By 1995, the status of bald eagles throughout the country had changed from endangered to threatened. By 2007, there were about 10,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states, Eckhoff said.
“That’s a big jump in 12 years,” he added.
Now, according to Eckhoff, Minnesota has somewhere around 2,000 nesting pairs, with about 30 more being added each year. He explained that after Alaska and Florida, Minnesota has the most bald eagles in the United States.
For the past nine years, a pair of eagles have nested every year near Hidden Lake at Lake Carlos State Park. In that time, they’ve gone through three different nests, mainly because they’ve built in aspen trees that are more likely to break or blow down in storms, he said.
Their third nest blew down about a month ago in a thunderstorm.
For the past two years, the eagles in the park have raised three chicks, which shows that it’s a good location with plenty of food. This year, he said, the eagles’ first eggs didn't hatch, but two eggs laid later did. They weren’t very old when the nest came down, however, and they probably didn’t survive.
Bald eagles typically nest within one-half mile of water, and may even nest near cities or homes as long as there is a good tree and plenty of food.
“They seem to be pretty tolerant of people,” he said.
Eckhoff isn’t sure how many eagles are now nesting in Douglas County, but he does know of at least six nests in the area. Those nests included ones in Lake Carlos State Park, by Arrowwood Resort, by Theatre L’Homme Dieu,on County Road 65, along Highway 27 southwest of Alexandria, and two on Oscar Lake.
“We don’t have any current data right now for bald eagles in the county,” he said.
Eagle sightings also seem to be becoming more common in the winter, although Eckhoff isn’t sure if it is because there are more eagles now or that they are actually sticking around more. Typically, bald eagles in this area would follow the Mississippi River down to open water in southern Minnesota as lakes freeze up here. But some may stick around if they can find road-killed animals or open water, which also attracts birds for the eagles to try to catch, he said.
Although eagle sightings have become commonplace, some challenges remain, Eckhoff explained. One is that eagles often scavenge roadkill from highways, which can lead to collisions. The other is lead poisoning from fragments of lead slugs in scavenged deer.
“Those are the two biggest threats to our current population,” he added.