Friday, March 16, 2012

Ornithology: Bald Eagles in Chicago

Who woulda thunk it, our national symbol, the most treasured and once endangered species of bird nesting right here in Chicago? A pair of birds of the species Haliaeetus leucocephalus have been causing a bit of a stir as their presence has forced the mayor to scuttle plans to build a police shooting range along the banks of the Calumet River on the city's far southeast side. Rahm Emanuel in an uncharacteristic display of effusiveness, said that the birds' presence in the city is not an inconvenience, but a cause to celebrate.

It makes one wonder what other animal would create such a fuss. The tenuous survival of the Spotted Owl caused the controversial disruption of the logging industry in parts of the Pacific Northwest. Of course there the survival of an entire species was at stake, here in the case of these majestic raptors who are no longer endangered, it's more an issue of bragging rights. Would the city have changed its plans if say a pair of beavers set up their home downstream from the shooting range? Of course not.

Still I agree with the mayor, it is a cause to celebrate the fact that a species of animal (whether it be our national symbol or not), that once was in a very precarious state, can now be found raising its family within the limits of our fair city.

For its part, the bald eagle is a very opportunistic bird. Contrary to their noble image, they are scavengers, a large part of their diet is in fact road kill. They are also not above committing grand larceny. My friend Jack Jaffe once told me about an experience he had while fly fishing in Montana. He saw an osprey dive head first into the stream and come up with a prized trout. As the bird gained altitude it was harassed by a much larger bald eagle. Flying for its life the osprey dropped the fish in mid-air. The eagle then swooped down and caught its pilfered dinner before it hit the water, suggesting there is perhaps more to the eagle as our national symbol than meets the eye.

Incidentally, in Australia the national symbol of course is the kangaroo. It is, so they say, second only to the Statue of Liberty as most recognizable national symbol in the world. There however they eat their national symbol and shoot them when they are deemed pests by ranchers. Who knows what we would do to our national symbol if it were as plentiful as the lowly pigeon. Or what if, as Benjamin Franklin suggested, the wild turkey (given the eagle's less than stellar reputation) had become our national bird. Would we be feasting on bald eagle every Thanksgiving?

A few years ago while waiting with my son for a train to arrive in our neighborhood, I spotted a bird soaring high above at what I guessed to be at least 500 ft. It held its wings board stiff and at that altitude, being able to see it at all meant it was clearly a very large bird. My son didn't believe my initial assessment that it was an eagle. Neither did a few of my friends who knew something about birds. But today I'm starting to think I may have been right.

Mama (right) and Papa Eagle, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois
Eagle Jr.
I can't describe my feelings when I made my first confirmed sighting of bald eagles in the wild down at Starved Rock a few years ago. The pair of adults and their much larger juvenile offspring were unmistakable as they flew to and from their perches across the wide Illinois River. You can see the adults in the less than National Geographic quality photo above. Their baby is in the photo on the left. Seeing them in person thrilled me beyond words.

As for these Chicago birds and their new family, well it's a good news, bad news proposition. Wild animals settling in urban areas are usually signs of their diminishing natural habitat. Credit that to unbridled suburban sprawl. In order to survive they have to adapt and learn to live with humans. As you can imagine, bald eagles are well suited for that. All I can say to these new urban dwellers is this:

Welcome to Chicago. Survive and prosper.

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