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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

In winter, eagles perch on high near open water searching for an easy meal of fish or carrion. © Herbert Lange
In winter, eagles perch on high near open water searching for an easy meal of fish or carrion.

© Herbert Lange

December 2007

Bald and beautiful

Eagles return to stir emotion, spur economics.

Natasha Kassulke

Battling back | Wisconsin recovery
Public support | Raptor results
City cousins | Translocation
Feathered friends | Ecotourism
The road to rehabilitation
Where to watch eagles | Adopt an eagle nest

If Benjamin Franklin had his way, the turkey would be our national symbol and the eagle would have gone down in history as "a bird of bad moral character."

So it's a good thing for the eagle that a majority of the Founding Fathers saw beyond the bird's penchant for picking at carrion, and in 1782 designated the eagle as the emblem of the new nation's strength and bravery.

While other birds migrate to sunny coastal communities, the cold months of November through March are good times to find Haliaeetus leucocephalus feeding across Wisconsin waterways. These resilient raptors usually can be seen in the greatest numbers in the morning near open water, where they fly back and forth, searching for their first meal of the day.

Battling back

The eagle flyways weren't always as crowded as they are today. Settlement, bounty hunting, logging and pesticides historically took their toll on eagle populations.

In the late 1940s, DDT and other organochlorine pesticide compounds were sprayed to control mosquitoes, and later used as crop insecticides. Dichloro-diphenyl-dichloroethylene (DDE), the principal metabolic breakdown product of DDT, devastated eagle productivity from the 1950s through the mid-1970s. DDE was found in fish the eagles ate. As eagles consumed this contaminated prey, DDE accumulated in their bodies and caused them to lay thin-shelled eggs that would break before hatching. Another pesticide, dieldrin, also built up in the eagles' bodies and caused some to die.

After scientists discovered the dangers of DDT, the chemical was banned for most uses in the United States starting in 1972. Following the DDT ban, and a ban on the use of dieldrin, the number of nesting pairs of bald eagles in Wisconsin steadily increased, from just 100 pairs in the early 1970s to more than 1,000 pairs today.

Wisconsin recovery

By conducting important eagle survey work from 1973 to 1989, Chuck Sindelar of Waukesha launched Wisconsin's fledgling eagle recovery effort. Rhinelander wildlife biologist Ron Eckstein says Sindelar was surveying eagles as a hobby even before DNR became involved. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supplied the pilot to fly the aerial surveys and Dave Evans, a raptor specialist from Duluth, assisted as a climber to get into the nests and band the eagles.

Eagle surveyor Charles Sindelar holds an eagle sent to Missouri as part of a program to reestablish eagles across their natural range. © Ron Eckstein
Eagle surveyor Charles Sindelar holds an eagle sent to Missouri as part of a program to reestablish eagles across their natural range.

© Ron Eckstein

In 1986, DNR approved a Bald Eagle Recovery Plan with the goal of increasing the self-sustaining population of bald eagles in Wisconsin to 360 breeding pairs by the year 2000. That goal was accomplished and expanded.

Last year, 1,065 eagle nest territories were occupied by breeding adults in Wisconsin. The locations are on file with Wisconsin's Natural Heritage Inventory (NHI), the repository for information on Wisconsin's threatened and endangered species. Today, eagle territories are distributed across much of Wisconsin, with the largest concentrations in Vilas, Oneida, Burnett and Sawyer counties.

Eckstein, who has been working with eagles since 1975, says his work has taken him right into eagle nests. He has fond memories of sitting in an eagle nest 100 feet off the ground and sharing it with an eaglet as he surveyed forestland in northern Wisconsin.

DNR avian ecologist Patricia Manthey is one of a small group of wildlife specialists who conduct springtime aerial surveys to locate eagle nests and June surveys to count eaglets. "I love to watch eagles taking care of their young in the nest," Manthey says. "The female knows just the right size of morsel of fish to tear off and offer to its young." Manthey also enjoys watching chicks strengthen their muscles as they walk out on branches in preparation for their first flight. "Then, one day they just fly, and fly well," Manthey says. "The first landings, though, are often messy and can involve crash landings."

Public support

Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act provided the initial funding for eagle survey work, along with state funds from the endangered resources tax check-off. Today, Wisconsin's eagle survey program is funded primarily from sales of the endangered resources license plate, the Adopt An Eagle Nest program, and the federal Pittman-Robinson Wildlife Restoration Act Fund.

"The people of Wisconsin very directly paid for eagle recovery," says Randy Jurewicz, a staff biologist for DNR's endangered resources program. "Because of their donations over the years, we have been able to establish exactly where these nests are and that has been pivotal to recovery, because it has allowed us to contact land owners and make sure they are aware that they have eagle nests on their property."

Some communities also have played an active role in monitoring eagle recovery in Wisconsin. Jeb Barzen is a member of the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council research team, which has monitored Sauk Prairie's wintering eagle population through radio tracking and roost counts. The Sauk Prairie community has paid for research and monitoring costs for more than two decades. In the winters of 2002 and 2003, for example, 17 eagles were fitted with radio harnesses and then tracked for three winters at an eventual cost of more than $75,000.

The data is put to good use: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used eagle winter phenology data to modify their regulation of Highway 12 bridge repairs. Several town boards have incorporated eagle data from the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council in their land-use plans, and some land development projects were adjusted to accommodate eagle needs. Radio-tracking data also helped measure the impact of new diseases like West Nile virus on eagle populations.

Raptor results

After four decades of protection, on August 8, 2007, the bald eagle was officially removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife.

The nation's symbol has recovered from an all-time low of 417 nesting pairs in 1963 in the lower 48 states to an estimated high of 9,789 breeding pairs today.

"The bald eagle has rebounded from the brink of extinction to reach population levels that have not been seen [in the continental U.S.] since World War II," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall. "This success is the result of a lot of hard work on the part of federal and state agencies, conservation organizations and individuals across the nation."

To ensure that eagles continue to thrive, the service will work with state wildlife agencies and many volunteers to monitor eagles for at least five years. Sumner Matteson, a DNR avian ecologist in Madison, is working on Wisconsin's eagle transition. "Delisting the eagle hasn't lessened the need for eagle education," Matteson contends. If it appears that bald eagles again need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the service can propose to relist the species.

The bald eagle is currently managed in Wisconsin as a "protected wild animal" under NR 10.02 (6). Bald eagles also remain federally protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The "Eagle Act" prohibits a "take" of bald eagles. "Take" is defined as pursuing, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, capturing, trapping, collecting or otherwise harming an eagle. The act also prohibits "disturbing," which means agitating or bothering an eagle to a degree that is likely to cause injury to the bird, decrease its productivity or lead it to abandon its nest.

Currently, there is no regulatory mechanism in place to permit "take" under the Eagle Act, as there was under the Endangered Species Act. Matteson says that will likely change under proposed federal rules expected to go in effect in June 2008. Once the new rules are in place, bald eagle nests can be removed if take is unavoidable and the activity is necessary for public welfare such as safety at airports, or if the location poses a threat to the eagles themselves.

City cousins

Urban eagle populations also are popping up in Wisconsin. In April 2006, two adult bald eagles made history by building a nest atop a hardwood tree along the Milwaukee River in Mequon. The eagles are believed to be the first pair of eagles nesting in southeastern Wisconsin in more than 100 years.

Adopt an eagle nest
Individuals, clubs, schools and other groups can become bald eagle "foster parents" by contributing a $100 per year adoption fee.

Contributions are used for aerial surveys, rescue and rehabilitation of sick or orphaned young, protecting nest trees and educational materials for schools. Sponsors receive an adoption certificate, a report on the current year's management activities and a photograph of young eaglets in a nest.

To adopt an eagle nest, enclose a check payable to "Endangered Resources Fund - Eagle Nests." Minimum contribution is $100. Include the address of the recipient and the name and address of the donor (if they are different). Send donations to:

Adopt An Eagle Nest
Department of Natural Resources
Bureau of Endangered Resources
PO Box 7921
Madison WI 53707-7921

For more information, call
(608) 266-7012.

For Owen Boyle, an endangered resources ecologist with the DNR in Milwaukee, the discovery was an endangered species success story. While it may no longer surprise people vacationing in northern Wisconsin to see an eagle, it is still newsworthy to see a pair take residence near Milwaukee.

"These eagles are pioneers and have learned to live with people," Boyle says.

Sighting of another pair soon followed on Big Muskego Lake. And the DNR is investigating other unconfirmed urban eagle sightings.

"The recolonization of the eagle in Milwaukee County has been a great opportunity to raise awareness of how we can co-exist with rare species," Boyle says. "I believe eagles are here to stay in southeastern Wisconsin. It's not a coincidence that we have the first eagle nesting in the greater Milwaukee area in 100 years, the same year that the species was delisted. This is a local example of the importance and effectiveness of legislation that protects rare species."


Other states benefit from Wisconsin's success with eagles. The first eaglet that hatches in a nest almost always survives, but chances are not very good for the eaglets that follow. Wisconsin's translocation project takes third and sometimes second eaglets from a nest and finds them a new home.

"Nature creates a surplus," Jurewicz says. "So sending the third and sometimes second eaglet to another state does nothing to diminish the eagle population in Wisconsin."

Since 1975, 219 eaglets have been sent to six Eastern states, including the New York City region.

Feathered friends

Delisting of the eagle has caused some confusion about the legality of possessing eagle feathers. For hundreds of years, Native Americans have used eagle feathers for religious and cultural purposes, including healing, marriage and naming ceremonies.

Under the "eagle feather law" (Title 50 Part 22 of the United States Code of Federal Regulations), only individuals of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the National Eagle Repository at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Denver, Colo. in the early 1970s to provide Native Americans with the feathers of golden and bald eagles needed for ceremonies. Most of the dead eagles the repository receives have been salvaged by state and federal wildlife personnel.

Permits to obtain eagles or eagle parts are issued by the service. Because of the large demand and limited supply, each applicant can apply for only one whole eagle or specific parts equivalent to one bird at a time.

Feathers or parts of bald or golden eagles and other migratory birds may not be sold, purchased, bartered or traded. They may, however, be handed down to family members from generation to generation, or from one Native American to another for religious purposes.


The large population of wintering bald eagles makes Wisconsin a premier destination for eagle watching.

Eagle-related events and activities draw tourists, and communities hosting them have lifted the state's visibility as an ecotourism and bird-watching destination. The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council conducted identical economic surveys of eagle watchers in 1994 and 2004 in the Prairie du Sac area and found that about $1,144,000 is currently generated by visitors during a time that otherwise would be a slow tourist season for community businesses. The survey also showed that eagle tourism income had increased by $200,000 over the past 10 years in that community.

In addition, the eagle-related events focus national media attention on Wisconsin. In the last several years, bird watching in Wisconsin has garnered national media attention from CNN, CBS Sunday Morning, the Chicago Tribune, Audubon, Mother Earth News, UK Birdwatch, Midwest Airlines magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The road to rehabilitation

Marge Gibson's childhood fascination with birds led to a career as a raptor researcher and a wildlife rehabilitator in southern California. Today, she lives in Antigo where she directs the Raptor Education Group, Inc. With her husband Don, Gibson founded the nonprofit organization in 1990 and now takes about 600 injured birds under her wing each year, including bald eagles.

"When I was a child it was unusual to see a bald eagle in northern Wisconsin," Gibson recalls. Forty years later, she says, that has changed.

But as populations of people and eagles have increased, so has the potential for eagle injury. At one time, Gibson had 36 eagles recovering at her facility. Now she sees about 50 injured eagles annually.

One of the top reasons eagles die is motor vehicle collisions. DNR staff and volunteers recovered over 90 sick, injured or dead eagles in 2006 and the leading cause of death was collision with a vehicle. Most vehicle collisions occur when eagles scavenge car-killed deer.

Falls from nests during windstorms and environmental contaminants also make the list of threats. Diseased fish and poor water quality can reduce eagle success. About three percent of eagles necropsied each year test positive for West Nile virus.

Some eagles are shot illegally by people who dislike birds of prey. Others become tangled in fish line or six-pack plastic. Still others are electrocuted when they perch on power lines.

"Lead poisoning remains a big problem," Gibson says. Eagles become poisoned when they eat waterfowl or deer contaminated by lead shot. Fishing lures are another source of lead. Between 1980 and 1996, The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota reported lead poisoning in 138 of 650 eagles they treated.

"We need to remember that eagles have done well," Gibson says. "But they have done well through their protection at the state and federal level. While their numbers have increased in Wisconsin, we need to remain diligent and cautious. We need to be sensitive to their needs and the threats that remain so that the eagle doesn't lose the ground it has gained."

Natasha Kassulke is creative products manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources.

Where to watch eagles
Eagle Watching Days
Sauk City/Prairie du Sac, January 19-20, 2008

The Wisconsin River below the Prairie du Sac dam is one of the best eagle viewing destinations in the state. Other excellent viewing locations include Veterans Park, Wollersheim Winery and Eagle Island. For more information call (800) 683-2453 or visit Sauk Prairie Chamber of Commerce or Ferry Bluff Eagle Council. Bus tours are conducted each Saturday from mid-January to mid-February beginning at the Cedarberry Inn, 855 Phillips Blvd, Sauk City. Call (608) 643-6625.

15th Annual Bald Eagle Days
Cassville, January 26-27, 2008

Each year hundreds of eagles can be seen along the village's waterfront at the Wildlife Observation Deck in Riverside Park. Educational programs will be held at Cassville High School on January 26 beginning at 9 a.m. Visit Cassville Tourism or call (608) 725-5855.

Bald Eagle Appreciation Day
Prairie du Chien, February 23, 2008

Activities are centered along the Mississippi River at the Wisconsin Welcome Center, 211 S. Main St., Prairie du Chien. View eagles between the Blackhawk Avenue and Washington Street bridges, and at Lawler Park on St. Feriole Island. Visit Prairie Du Chien Area Chamber of Commerce or call (800) 732-1673. Wyalusing State Park, located 10 miles south of Prairie du Chien offers additional eagle viewing. (608) 996-2261.

To make an eagle mobile: Visit Environmental Education for Kids!