The Bald Eagle's Triumphant Return to Michigan’s Majestic Skies


As summer peaks and blossoms across Michigan, you might catch sight of our country’s majestic national emblem, the bald eagle, patrolling the mighty Huron River or perched high in a tree surveying one of our many lakes in search of a fish. These birds have not only grown in numbers but also expanded their territories into more urban landscapes in the state.

Contrary to their name, bald eagles are not bald, like turkey vultures (easier cleaning after spending a day with your head inside a carcass). Adult bald eagles are easily distinguishable by their white heads and tails that beautifully contrast with their dark brown bodies. Meanwhile, juveniles sport dark brown heads, tails, and bodies speckled with white and brown mottling.

In 1782, the bald eagle was chosen as the symbol of the United States for its strength, longevity, and regal appearance. They epitomized the nation's freedom and might, even though Benjamin Franklin had reservations, noting the bird's tendency to steal food from more vulnerable avians. This crafty bird can be seen soaring with flat wings, searching for carrion, which they often snatch from smaller animals. Despite being efficient hunters, bald eagles frequently let other animals do the hunting for them.

They build colossal nests, often five to six feet wide and two to four feet deep. These birds prefer tall trees close to large bodies of water. Remarkably, they utilize the same nest repeatedly, year after year. Additionally, bald eagles mate for life and typically rear one to three eaglets annually.

The soaring eagle numbers in Michigan, currently at about 900 breeding pairs, contrast starkly with the grim figures of the past. In 1980 only 83 pairs existed, which grew to 359 pairs by 2000. This growth is especially significant when you consider that, 60 years ago, bald eagles were scarcely seen across Michigan and the U.S. By 1963, the U.S. bald eagle population hit an alarming low of 417 nesting pairs throughout the lower 48 states, relegating them to the endangered species list.

Their decline was attributed to habitat loss and the disastrous effects of the pesticide DDT. This chemical led to reproductive issues, exacerbating population drops in the 1950s and 1960s. Michigan was at the forefront of bald eagle conservation, becoming the first state to prohibit DDT in 1969, three years before a national ban.

Erin Rowan Ford is a conservation manager for Michigan with Audubon Great Lakes, who works in partnership with the DNR. She said that after near-extinction in the mid-20th century, there now are more than 300,000 bald eagles in the wild across the country, and “The species’ recovery is a success story, one that speaks to the groundbreaking work of conservationists and researchers, which led to policies that continue to protect wildlife today.”

Though removed from the endangered species list in 2007 and no longer considered threatened, bald eagles remain federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Chris Mensing, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Lansing, Michigan, suggests how the public can support these magnificent raptors. "You can help bald eagles succeed in Michigan by keeping a safe distance from nests and avoiding certain activities that could disturb them," said Chris Mensing, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist based out of Lansing, Michigan. "When outdoors, take a moment to clean up trash, safely dispose of old fishing line and lures, and avoid using lead shot and lead tackle."

Interestingly, winter is an ideal time to witness bald eagles across the Great Lakes region. These birds are drawn to the Great Lakes to nest and nurture their young. The snowy woodlands, close to vast water bodies, are their preferred locales. Their nests—giant constructs made by lifelong partners—are easy to spot for those lifting their eyes up from the trail. Whatever season it is, with all our lakes, creeks, and rivers, look up the next time you’re outdoors. You just might spot these birds and their architectural wonders.

Sources: Michigan DNR, Huron Clinton Metroparks.

Photos courtesy of Michigan DNR

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