Bald Eagles and Me

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Everybody of a certain age has a bald eagle story.

I spent six of the first eight years of my life in Buffalo, N.Y. Growing up there, the bald eagle had almost mythic significance to my young mind because it was a symbol in more ways than one. Not only did it represent our country; it was vanishingly rare. You never saw one except on television. It wasn’t like cardinals, for instance, which are the state bird of seven states precisely because they’re everywhere. The eagle’s very scarcity added to its mythology, as well as providing a potent lesson in environmentalism, conservation and the fragility and interconnectedness of life.

In the summer of 1976 — another interesting piece of symbolism, being the bicentennial year — my family moved to Wisconsin, far closer to eagle habitat. And as my brothers and I grew older we started making annual treks to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.

There we finally caught glimpses of eagles in the wild – huge birds, black wings outstretched, seemingly headless because their white skulls often blended into the brightness of the sky as they circled far above us. Each encounter was a moment of awe and wonder. Merely seeing the puffy shape of an empty eagle’s nest, high up in some ancient dead tree, was enough to provoke excitement. It was almost like spotting a Yeti or a Sasquatch – finally meeting up with a legendary but seldom seen king of the wild places.

I attended college in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities. But my glimpses of eagles remained confined to the still-frequent trips to the Boundary Waters.

When I was 25, our parents took us on a trip to Alaska. One day we decided to go deep-sea fishing. We arrived at the dock and piled on to the charter boat. As it eased out into the channel leading to the ocean, I saw them: eagles, dozens of them, perched in the trees lining the channel. Juveniles, adults, pairs and singles. They were there for the same reason we were: fish. And they were there in droves.

The fishing was awful, at least for me: I caught one tiny rockfish, which appeared to have been hooked accidentally as it ignored my line. But the fishing expedition turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip, thanks to the eagles.

My career took me around the country, to places like New Jersey and Florida. The latter is another eagle-dense state, but I didn’t see many there, since I spent most of my time in urban areas. Several years later, though, I landed a job back in the Twin Cities, and we returned to Minnesota.

We first lived in Minneapolis, which had lots of sparrows but no eagles. But we drove back and forth to Wisconsin a lot to visit my parents, and increasingly spotted eagles circling far above the highway. We thought that was cool, a small sign of the comeback we’d been reading about.

Then we moved to the western suburbs, pursuing a better school district and more affordable housing. We found ourselves surrounded by lakes and wetlands – and eagles.

Now, despite living in a densely populated suburb, we see eagles every day. A nesting pair lives a couple miles from our house. Another lives somewhere in the opposite direction; I see them overhead in the morning as I drive my daughters to school and day care.

To me and my wife — raised during a time when eagles were on the brink of extinction — this is endlessly amazing. We never tire of seeing them, craning our necks or pulling the car over to the side of the road merely to watch.

Our daughters like eagles, too. But they don’t understand our fascination, and they likely never will. They see eagles every day. When we go to the Minnesota Zoo — a not-infrequent occurrence — we always attend the bird show, where they get to see a bald eagle up close.

They like it when I point out wildlife as we drive along. But I’ve lost all credibility with them as far as eagles are concerned.

“Look up there!” I’ll say.

“WHAT? WHAT?” they’ll ask excitedly, squirming around in their seats to get a look. “What is it?”

“A bald eagle!”

“Oh.” They’ll immediately stop squirming and go back to annoying each other.

So I’m very happy that the bald eagle is officially back from the brink – removed yesterday from the federal government’s list of threatened species. And I’m glad that they plan to continue managing the eagle population so that it doesn’t end up back on the list – even though that appears to means that the Minnesota man whose lawsuit prompted the action still won’t be able to develop his eagle-infested property despite winning the suit.

But I’m sad that my daughters will never share our sense of wonder at their existence. They’ll grow up bemused by their parents’ eagle fixation, never quite understanding the experience that underlies it.

Still, it’s a good problem to have. Welcome back, bald eagle. May you soar for many years more.

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About Sean Aqui

  • I just got back from Maine where we saw both Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons, both of which have resurged in that area with a vengeance. I was surprised to learn that unlike most land-dwelling bald eagles which are scavengers, the ones on the coast actually dive for and catch fish.


  • Clavos

    There are substantial numbers of Bald Eagles on the lower Southwest coast of Florida, a fact I hadn’t known despite decades of living on the Southeast coast, until a recent trip to Ft. Myers.

    They’re plentiful there (Marco Island even has a street named Bald Eagle Drive).

    They truly are magnificent, majestic creatures.

  • Zedd

    Very nice article.

    Is this political?

  • Dave: Peregrines are cool, too. I love that they can nest in large cities, living on pigeons. Proves even flying rats have a purpose (feeding peregrines).

    Clavos: I lived in St. Petersburg, on the west coast, and simply never made it down to Fort Myers, except for two brief pass-bys on our way to Alligator Alley — once for a trip to Miami, once for a diving trip to the Keys. I wish we had spent more time in South Florida.

    Zedd: It’s at least somewhat political, being about conservation, our national symbol and the subject of a recent SCOTUS ruling. I couldn’t think of a better place for it. Apparently, neither could Dave.

  • Joe

    Great article, thank you. I still remember the first time I saw a bald eagle, on a lake in Northern Minnesota. I was young and the significance of the sighting was etched in my brain forever. Thank you for warming up the memories.

  • bliffle

    I, too, spent teenage summers canoeing in the boundary waters with my fishing buddy, where we were once treated to the sight of a bald eagle launching from his dominant position at the top of the tallest pine in the area to snatch a crow in midair. Very exciting.

    Interesting how many young men experienced the wilderness glory of the boundary waters area. Give thanks to Truman and the US congress for declaring it a roadless and airplaneless area in 1949 so that it is accessible only by canoe.

    Saturday I went hiking in the Santa Cruz mountains with another old-timer who worked there as a teenage ranger for the Forest Service during WW2 (so adult men could fight in the war).

    We have transient bald eagles in the San Jose area and the occasional resident, but golden eagles are pretty easy to find: when you see a soaring bird that is noticeably bigger than the common vultures and hawks, it is a golden eagle. When you see a soaring bird that is REALLY REALLY big, in a class by itself, it is a condor (they can have a 9 ft. wingspan).

  • The trips to the Boundary Waters (usually twice a year, once with the family and once with the Scouts) were easily the highlights — and in some ways, defining moments — of my childhood. Especially before cellphones and GPS. Once you were a lake or two in — especially if you turned off the beaten paths — you were truly off the grid, and if something happened you could be a three-day paddle from help. The quiet, the fishing, the beauty — and the mosquitos — were all incredible.

    As we got older the BWCA began to seem overtraveled, so we started going further afield — to the Canadian side, in the Quetico.

    My kids are nearly old enough for extended camping trips. We expect to begin a new generation of BWCA traditions in the next couple of years.

  • Here’s a photo of an eagle I took a couple weeks ago. Feel free to use it on your blog or as wallpaper on your computer.

  • troll

    here’s a bit of Americana:

    when I pulled crab pots off the coast of Alaska back in the day the owner of the boat sat with his 30.06 taking pot shot at eagles and Russian fishermen all of whom he considered to be direct competitors…happily he was a poor shot

    the eagles were as thick as the gulls

  • dan

    Not much meat on them hot eagle wings