As the waters warm and spring arrives, you can see any number of animals emerging and even more returning from other waters to the south where they have been wintering. Loons, ducks, and even smaller songbirds such as White Throated Sparrows. But it is the eagles that fascinate many of us.
With wingspans sometimes greater than six feet and the ability to fly at seventy-five miles an hour, eagles are physically impressive birds. They sit atop the food chain and strongly affect their environments. They regulate other predators through their territorial nature, especially during the breeding season. They also serve as bellwethers for the health of the waters they fish.
As common and established as the Bald Eagle is today, that was not always true for Voyageurs or the nation as a whole. They were sadly and strongly affected by a chemical that was a part of life for many Americans: DDT. While it excelled at killing all manner of insects harmful to people, it had unforeseen consequences for the animals that ate those insects. Perched at the top of the food chain, eagles were particularly harmed. Although they weren’t killed when they ate fish contaminated by the toxin, it affected their eggs. Tragically, the chemical caused the shells of their eggs to form too thin, and when the eagles sat on their eggs, they would break.
This DDT poisoning nearly led to the extinction of bald eagles in the United States. It was only a nationwide recognition of the problem and a concerted effort to cease use of the chemical that helped save the bald eagle. Once this was accomplished, work began towards the stabilization and eventual revitalization of the eagle population, bringing them back from the brink. At its inception, Voyageurs National Park only had one successful breeding pair of eagles; today we have over fifty.
Today those efforts to monitor and study the park’s eagles continue. In mid-June, eagle banding season began once again. Biologists and volunteers ventured out to nests all throughout the park, braving the angry parents circling above, to carefully place special bands on the legs of this year’s eaglets. While their feathers and bodies might have more growing to do, when they are five to six weeks old the chicks’ feet and talons are fully developed. Once banded, they are returned to the nest where their parents continue to care for them. Not long after banding, the eaglets will fledge and begin to fly and hunt for themselves.
Banding of eaglets is vital to researchers nationwide as it allows for eagles captured anywhere in the nation to be traced back to the waters of their birth. Additionally, biologists can use these banded eagles to tell us useful facts such as their migration routes, their age, and many other things. Eagles generally nest in the same locations year after year, so biologists can use these bands to learn which birds survived another year no matter where they choose to spend their winters.
So keep an eye on the skies as you explore your park. You might see one of these amazing birds and a little piece of metal on their leg, reminding us how we can make a difference in our world for the better.
Courtesy of Namakan District Interpretation Staff