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Illinois hunting and fishing

This week’s migrant: American bald eagle

February 07, 2013 at 03:35 PM

Illinois Audubon Society

Vernon Kleen is a retired ornithologist and board member of the Illinois Audubon Society

The American Bald Eagle is not only our National Bird, but also our National Emblem; it represents the prestige and majesty of our great democracy.

Adult Bald Eagles are easily recognized by their white heads and tails and by their very large size including a six- to seven-foot wing span.  Immatures are as large as the adults but do not acquire white heads and tails until they are four or five years of age. 

Bald Eagles mate for life, use the same nest year after year unless it is disturbed, and can live from fifteen to twenty or more years if humans, their only enemy, do not interfere. 

From one to three eggs are laid in their massive nests. 

It takes five weeks for the eggs to hatch and another ten to thirteen weeks before the young birds fledge.  More than three quarters of the eagle’s diet is fish—often dead fish; consequently, these birds are most commonly associated with large bodies of water. 

The Bald Eagle was once considered a regular and fairly common nesting species in Illinois.  However, for one or more reasons, the breeding population disappeared about sixty years ago.  In the 1970’s the bird was declared to be a national- and state-listed Endangered Species. 

Beginning in the 1980’s, and most significantly in the 1990’s, the number of pairs of nesting eagles began to increase.  The population rebounded so well that a few years ago the eagle was removed from the list of endangered species.  At present there are more than 200 nests in Illinois including at least three in Sangamon County.

Each fall and winter Bald Eagles migrate south from their northern nesting areas to the open water areas of the Mississippi and Illinois river systems and nearby wildlife refuges.  Its during these months that Illinois can boast one of the largest eagle concentrations of any state south of the Canadian border – perhaps as high as one-quarter to one-third of the entire U.S. population outside of Alaska. 

People living along the rivers often see these grandiose birds and do not realize what a treat it is.  Those of us living here in Springfield are often rewarded as well because of the birds (including the nesting pair) that regularly visit Lake Springfield when it’s not iced over. 

As spring thaws begin, long before the official arrival of spring, Bald Eagles begin their northward journeys—heading towards their nesting sites. 

The migration usually begins in mid-February and is generally concluded by late March.  For those who would like to see our national bird, watch for them around Lake Springfield, or, travel to the locks and dams on either the Illinois or Mississippi rivers where the birds are still concentrated. 

Although Bald Eagles are no longer considered an endangered species, they are still fully protected by state and federal laws and it is still illegal to disturb them, their nests, their roosting sites, or the habitat around their nests and roosting sites. 

Several years ago, while the eagle was still an endangered species, the school children of Illinois recognized the need to protect eagle habitat here in Illinois. 

Through a special program sponsored and coordinated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in cooperation with the Illinois Audubon Society, Illinois Office of Education and The Nature Conservation, the children raised $53,000 for the purchase of strategic eagle habitat at two sites along the Mississippi River, one near Warsaw and the other at Rock Island. 

We are truly fortunate to be able to enjoy this majestic bird in Illinois, that the nesting population is on the upswing, and that it is no longer an endangered species.

Next Week’s Migrant:  American Tee Sparrow

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