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Americas symbol in the Red River Valley

More comments have come to me this winter about Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sightings than any other bird. This is due to three things: 1) Its easily recognized (at least mature adults), 2) There are more and more every year, and 3) Its simply a thrill to see one.

Nearly 40 years ago this regal predator was listed as endangered under a law in existence before the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Its numbers were falling virtually everywhere except Alaska. The reasons for its decline were many, but they were almost all human influences. Since then their numbers have boomed to the point where the US Fish and Wildlife Service is close to delisting it. If that happens, guidelines and protections will still be in place. Moreover, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald Eagle Protection Act continue to be in force.

Bald Eagles are large raptors that occupy a vast swath of North America from Alaska to Florida down to Mexico. In fact, its the only eagle exclusive to the continent. Most prefer to nest near bodies of wateroceans, rivers, lakes, swamps, etc. Fish make up a large part of its diet during the nesting season but it will take small animals and birds as well. In the winter they become opportunistic feeders as food resources dwindle. Bald Eagles are known for stealing kills from other birds and for feeding on dead carcasses. Around here it is common to see a group of them feeding on a road killed deer like vultures.

The second Continental Congress adopted the great seal of the United States in 1782. Along with that, came the Bald Eagle as the national emblem. But given the birds propensity for scavenging, the decision was not unanimous. Benjamin Franklin has long been recognized for resisting the choice. Lesser known is the fact that even John James Audubon was against the Bald Eagle representing our country.

Adults serve up a cant-miss identification. Large at nearly three feet tall, they are all brown-black except for the bold white head and tail. Set apart from the feathering are bright yellow legs and bill. The females, as with most raptors, are larger.

Juvenile birds pose a challenge to casual viewers. They appear a mottled mix of brown and white and, at least superficially, can appear to resemble Golden Eagles. Any good field guide should help a person through this confusion. It takes four to five years for Bald Eagles to attain adult plumage so there are many immature birds scattered around to test your I.D. skills.

The nests of Bald Eagles can be huge. Usually found near the tops of large trees, these large stick structures get added to every year by the nesting pair. Many are several feet across and can weigh hundreds of pounds.

Twenty years ago this bird was a tough one to find anywhere locally. That is not the case today. Several nearby Minnesota lakes boast of nesting Bald Eagles. Even North Dakota is seeing its numbers grow. Other than along the Missouri River, nesting has been recorded recently as close as Devils Lake and an attempt was made on the Red River just north of Grand Forks.

One can now spot Bald Eagles virtually any time of year here. Migration along the Red River can produce a couple dozen in a day. Plus winter populations continue to climb. I heard a secondhand report of someone seeing about 50 during a drive along ND Highway 46 recently.

With the doom and gloom tone that usually permeates environmental news, its refreshing to hear of a success. And given the Bald Eagles status as our nations mascot, its even more so.

Editors Note: The popular Flight Lines column will be on hiatus this summer. Keith Corliss will return to the Pioneer this fall.