The Rise of the Bald Eagle

Leier Doug
Doug Leier

By Doug Leier, NDG&F Dept. 

After writing recently about the whooping crane, an endangered bird species that migrates through North Dakota in spring and fall, I got a text message from a friend who was reporting the spring sighting of dozens of bald eagles in one spot.

While the area of interest was from northeastern South Dakota, a news story in the Aberdeen American News indicated the estimated number of bald eagles congregated on a place called Amherst Slough was close to 300.

I stopped for a minute and pondered that, as 30 years ago I’d have written it off as unlikely or impossible to have that many bald eagles in one place at one time in this part of the Midwest.

But here in 2017, it is possible. And it’s a good way to lead into the amazing bald eagle recovery success story.

Most people are somewhat familiar with the historical plight of bald eagles. At its lowest point in the mid-1900s, the bald eagle breeding population was estimated at fewer than 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states due to unregulated taking by humans, loss of habitat and environmental contaminants.

In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act because of fears that the nation’s symbol was threatened with extinction.

While this ended legal killing of eagles, illegal killing and other factors continued to work against bald eagles.

Locally, when the bald eagle was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978, North Dakota had no known nesting pairs and hadn’t for quite some time. Protection under the ESA got the rebound underway and the bounce-back is almost astonishing.

immature bald eagle
An immature bald eagle keeps watch from its perch.  Bald eagle numbers have soared since breeding pairs were at just 500 in the lower 48 states in 1940, and the passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act. (NDG&F Photo)

By 1999 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed taking the eagle completely off the endangered species list. On June 28, 2007 that proposal was granted and bald eagles were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species.

Today, bald eagle numbers in the lower 48 states have climbed more than 9,000 nesting pairs. In North Dakota, the number of nesting eagle pairs has risen from zero, to more than 200 documented in 2016.

Through the early years of the eagle recovery, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists were asking for reports of verified bald eagle sightings. Now, Game and Fish no longer needs reports of individual eagle sightings, but biologists continue to document active bald eagle nests. To date, biologists have documented nests in all but a few counties.

Here’s a link to report bald eagle nests in North Dakota: https://gf.nd.gov/wildlife/nest-reports/bald-eagle.

And here’s some other information about eagles featured on the Game and Fish Department’s website.

Nest Building: January and February. Nest building may take several months, or just a few days. Eagles may reuse the same nest annually for many years.

Egg Laying: early to mid-March. Generally 1-3 eggs are laid, with two the most common and very rarely four. Females typically lay one egg per day. Incubation is about 35 days, and begins after the first egg is laid.

Egg Hatching: early to mid-April. Hatching occurs over several days, with the first hatchling being larger than the next because it will be 1-2 days older.

Rearing Young: 8-12 weeks. By early July, the young will be nearly the same size as the adults and will venture out onto the branches in the nest tree and take their first unsteady flights.

Fledging Young: by the end of July or early August, the young are fully capable of flying and will leave (fledge) the nest. However, the fledglings may remain in the general area of the nest and be fed by adults for up to six weeks.

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