The Bald Eagle is truly one of the most magnificent creatures on this planet. However, you know, they’re not really bald. As you can see, its head is covered with white feathers. That’s because about 200 years ago when we were naming things, bald was a synonym for white-headed.
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A Destination for Bald Eagles and Humans
Eagles are naturally drawn to this part of the Mississippi River, in part, because the river not freezes here making fishing easier all year long. But also the bluffs flanking the river create an updraft that allows the big birds to soar effortlessly all day long.
The National Eagle Center started out quite simply as volunteers conducting eagle watching programs. Then, they opened a little storefront space in downtown Wabasha. The space allowed volunteers to care for two injured eagles named Harriet and Angel. Harriet has since passed away, but Angel and five other injured eagles, plus a red-tailed hawk, now live at the center.
Most of the time, two or three birds perch in a classroom area with caregivers standing by to answer questions. Everyone wants to know how big the birds are: These are about 10 pounds but mature female eagles can weigh up to 15 pounds. Eagles usually live about 20 years in the wild, but some have been documented to be 35 years old or more. They mate for life and have the biggest nests of all birds.
Eagles can squeeze nearly 400 pounds per square inch with their talons. A fun exhibit at the center measures the strength of your squeeze in comparison. I came in at an embarrassingly weak 15 pounds per square inch.
Bald Eagles and the Endangered Species List
But here’s a fact that people at the National Eagle Center are most proud of: Bald eagles are no longer on the endangered species list.
At one time in North America, bald eagles were everywhere. As human population increased, we cut down trees and otherwise messed with their habitat, making nesting difficult. But the worse thing was an insecticide we developed in the 1940s called DDT. While it was great at eliminating bugs on farm crops. But as DDT worked its way into the food chain, it messed with the fragility of bird egg shells. They became paper thin and baby birds died before they were ready to hatch.
By the 1970s, there were fewer than 500 pairs of nesting bald eagles in the Lower 48 states. But we stopped using DDT and much of their habitat became protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. For nearly 40 years, bald eagles were on the list of threatened and endangered species. But, in August 2007, just about the time the National Eagle Center opened, bald eagles were removed from the Endangered Species List.
Iconic Symbol of Strength
Besides simply being one of God’s most magnificent creatures, the bald eagle is a national symbol of the United States. Killing one will rightly get you in a boat load of trouble. You can learn all about that at the National Eagle Center, as well as why and how the bald eagle became a symbol of the United States. Benjamin Franklin had lobbied for a turkey as our national symbol.
I was transfixed by incredible stories of bald eagles, like one named Old Abe who was the mascot of a Wisconsin volunteer regiment during the Civil War. The bird lived through 37 battles. His head is now the insignia of the 101st Airborne, the “screaming eagles,” among the best of the U.S. military.
There’s never a bad time to visit the National Eagle Center, but March is particularly good because of the spring migration of bald eagles and the number of activities planned in Wabasha to celebrate these magnificent birds of prey.