MINNEAPOLIS — More than 11,000 people are part of a public Facebook group devoted to Minnesota's raptor family on EagleCam, not to mention thousands more checking in from almost every country and state. And it's been a celebratory time. Two chicks hatched last weekend to the parents, aka Harry and Nancy, bode well for season eight of the wildly popular happenings in the metro-area nest.
The scene is indicative of the times: Bald eagles are thriving.
In a report last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimated the population at 316,700 birds in the Lower 48 states — four times the number since the last estimate in 2009. Scientists relied on aerial surveys in 2018 and 2019 coupled with eBird data from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology for the update, which included more than 71,000 occupied nests, a 134% increase since 2009.
By any metric, Minnesota is at the heart of the national symbol's resurgence. The Mississippi Flyway is among the key survey areas and boasts the most eagle breeding sites and bird numbers. By any observation, too.
Lori Naumann said the population in Minnesota has been doing well "for quite a while now."
"[The eagle report] doesn't surprise me, and it obviously is very good news," said Naumann, who runs the EagleCam program for the Department of Natural Resource's Nongame Wildlife Program.
It's a brighter picture to be sure, because Naumann recalls some of the dire days. Minnesota had only 181 nesting pairs in 1980, yet it was a state on the rebound. Birds arrived from Alaska. In turn, Carrol Henderson, who founded the Nongame Wildlife Program, help lead the raptor's rebound in Minnesota while also helping restore populations elsewhere. For years Minnesota captured and sent up to four chicks to other states, including Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Missouri.
Naumann said bald eagles recovered in Minnesota quicker than in other states because of intense efforts on research, surveys and conservation. Some of the research involved analyzing toxins such as mercury in blood samples taken from eagle chicks on northern lakes. It's an issue that hasn't gone away all these years later, tainting the promising recovery. Also, many sick and dying bald eagles treated at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota have lead poisoning.
"It gives me a sense of pride knowing I work for the program that helped the entire U.S. population," she said.
In the Lower 48, bald eagles were at an all-time low 417 nesting pairs in 1963, the numbers ravaged by the use of the DDT. The pesticide poisoned eagles and also caused them to produce thinner eggshells that would break under their weight. DDT was banned in 1972. Already shielded by federal law, the eagle was one of the original species protected by the Endangered Species Act when it went into effect in 1973.