Bald eagle

A bald eagle in flight.

“Made my day,” a man wrote to me recently.

What made his day? A bird.

But not a common bird, a bald eagle. He saw it in Fort Wayne by the Saint Joe River. He wrote that it flew over, then plunged down into the river. He saw it splash as it hit the water, then fly up and away. He didn’t tell whether he saw that the eagle had anything in its talons as it flew away.

Seeing a bald eagle makes my day, when I see one. But I don’t see an eagle often. I see one now and then, however, which is more often than I saw an eagle when I was young. Then I never saw an eagle.

I was grown before I saw a bald eagle wild and free.

I remember well the first time I saw a bald eagle. I was visiting a friend in Omaha, Nebraska. My friend was showing me the countryside. He was driving along the Missouri River, near where it flows into the Mississippi River.

We recognized the eagle immediately. An adult bald eagle is unmistakable. To begin with, there’s its size. It’s huge. In one book I have the author described a bald eagle as majestic. Its wings span 7 to 7 1/2 feet. Then there’s its color, dark brown with a white head and tail.

An immature bald eagle lacks the white head and tail and is somewhat spotted.

Not recognizing an immature bald eagle, John James Audubon called one a bird of Washington. It takes four to five years for a young bald eagle to get the white head and tail.

An early naturalist, John Burroughs, wrote, “He (the bald eagle) draws great lines across the sky; he sees the forests like carpets beneath him; he sees the hills and valleys as folds and wrinkles in a silver colored tapestry; he sees the river as a silver belt connecting remote horizons.”

The primary food of this majestic bird, however, is fish, more often than not dead fish, that it gets from the surface of a river or lake or that it steals from an osprey. I saw a bald eagle take a fish from an osprey once. The osprey was flying over a river, a fish in its talons, and a bald eagle dived on it. The osprey dropped the fish and the eagle swooped past it, snatched the fish out of the air and flew away. That was another event I saw that made my day.

Many birds have declined in number, and continue to decline, chimney swifts, nighthawks, meadowlarks, field and vesper sparrows, to name a few. But bald eagles, though they have declined in some areas, have increased in others.

In winter many bald eagles gather in places along large rivers where the water does not freeze over. One such place is along the Mississippi River in Iowa. Another, smaller but still impressive, is below the Salamonie Dam along the Salamonie River in northern Indiana.

Bald eagles mate for life. They make their nests high in trees. Their nests are platforms of sticks lined with grass.

I have never seen an eagle nest. I’ve read that male and female both work at building the nest and raising a family. But they have different duties. When the nest is complete the female lays the eggs, of course, then incubates the eggs. While she is incubating the male brings her food. When the young leave the nest both adults lead them and show them how to hunt.

The bald eagle is our national bird, of course. Interestingly, it was not a unanimous choice. Some of the founders of our country wanted the national bird to be the wild turkey.

Neil Case may be reached at

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