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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Bald eagles may help rally Americans

Eagles are elegant birds, representing majesty and power and evoking the natural wonders of the continent. Eagles are survivors.

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Bald eagle.
Illustration/Mike Jacobs
    Mike Jacobs.jpg
    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – The bald eagle is an obvious choice for bird of the week at the end of the year, for several reasons.

    First, eagles are around. Seth Owens reported seeing one near Northwood, N.D., early in the last week of the year.

    During the last couple of decades, bald eagles have turned up on Christmas Bird counts in the area, including Crookston, and North Dakota counts at Devils Lake and Icelandic State Park.

    Eagles sustain themselves feeding on carrion, often gut piles left during deer season or roadkill of any kind. These they often share with crows, ravens and magpies and, once in a while, with golden eagles, as well.

    This has been a tough winter for carrion eaters, though. Snow makes scavenging difficult. For that reason, eagles have been notably fewer this winter.


    Eagles from this area and points north often move to the Missouri River Valley, where there is open water below the dams. Gavins Point in southeastern South Dakota, on the Nebraska border, is a notable gathering place for these wintering eagles. Garrison Reservoir north of Bismarck also attracts wintering eagles. Some of these are likely local nesters.

    Bald eagles nest regularly in the area, and more than once, eagles have become controversial. A landowner near Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge paid a hefty fine for removing a shelterbelt, leaving only a few trees that happened to contain an eagle nest. Eagles are fussy about disruption, and the adults abandoned the nest. The refuge is north of U.S. Highway 2 between Grand Forks and the Air Force base

    More recently, opponents of the Fufeng corn milling plant tried to establish that bald eagles nested near the site, which is just north of Grand Forks. The eagle nest, if that’s what it was, hadn’t been used in many years, so that tactic didn’t work. Opposition to the corn mill is focused on potential espionage, because the company pushing the plant is Chinese-owned.

    The eagles’ winter diet brought tragedy early in December, when at least three eagles died after eating animals that had been euthanized. The carcasses were dumped in a landfill at Inver Grove Heights, a Twin Cities suburb. At least 10 other eagles got sick and are being cared for at the University of Minnesota Raptor Center.

    All of this has brought attention to bald eagles – but these are not the rock-solid reason to promote the eagle as “bird of the week.”

    Instead, the eagle deserves recognition as the national symbol of the United States. Perhaps it isn’t far-fetched to suggest that the eagle can be a rallying point in our current national malaise.

    Eagles are elegant birds, representing majesty and power and evoking the natural wonders of the continent. Eagles are survivors. The North American eagle population plummeted during the years of widespread use of DDT, and a nationwide movement reversed the decline – a notable expression of national pride.

    Adult bald eagles, with their white heads and tails, are unmistakable. Bald eagles go through a series of plumage changes during the first three years of their lives. These plumages can lead to confusion with other large carrion eaters, especially ravens and golden eagles. A close examination of bill shape will separate the eagle from the raven. As for golden eagles, there is a bit of a size difference, but the clincher is the color of the feathers on the neck. That’s where the bird’s name comes from.


    Given the weather conditions, eagles are likely to be “accidental” this year. Come spring, we can expect to see nesting pairs, especially along the Red River and in mature shelterbelts, especially those near water. Eagles are also known nesters in the Devils Lake area.

    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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