The return of the majestic bald eagle

There is no mistaking the majesty of our Nation’s emblem … the bright white head, piercing eyes, dark plumage and the awesome size of the American bald eagle. Those who have witnessed an eagle in the wild may recall it as a breath-taking and monumental experience.

It’s been a long, hard struggle for the bald eagle in Illinois, but chances are much better to see one now. Once considered almost extinct in the state, the bald eagle was removed from the list of Threatened and Endangered Species in 2007. The return of eagles to Illinois and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie area after more than 100 years began nearly 20 years before then.

The biggest enemy of the eagle was the use of DDT. The pesticide was exposed to bald eagles by infecting the ground water, which contaminated the fish that would get consumed by eagles. Bald eagles migrate to the shoreline to reproduce. They consumed the contaminated fish from the water which in turn infected them. By female eagles being exposed to the pesticide anytime during their life, the endocrine disrupters in the body fat allowed the pesticide to infect the birds. This affected the mother bald eagles’ success in egg laying, pregnancy and chick survival.

When the mother eagle was infected with DDT, it resulted in her egg’s shells being too thin. The shell didn’t protect the chick during the incubation stage. The developing chick was often crushed when the adult bird was trying to keep it warm.

In 2004, high up in a tree along the banks of the Little Calumet River in Chicago, the nest of a mated pair of bald eagles was spotted. It was the first bald eagle nest seen around the Chicago area in more than 100 years. Today, 35 bald eagle nests have been spotted in the six counties surrounding Chicago.

Nests are easy to spot as they are constructed of stout limbs in large trees and can be almost the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. If undamaged, the nests are used year after year by the nesting pair.

Two of the nests are located at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. A nest was first confirmed during annual grassland bird surveys in June 2014 and, since then, it has been home to several successful fledglings. In 2017, another active nest was confirmed.

“The increase in numbers of nesting bald eagles in the Chicago area is a local conservation success story that deserves to be celebrated,” says Forest Service Supervisory Natural Resources Manager Mike Redmer. “The increase in nesting bald eagles in our area provides inspiration and hope for the return of other species of native Illinois prairie plants here.”

At Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, volunteers, partners and staff work with more than 275 species of native Illinois prairie plants to help increase and improve natural habitat for native Illinois grassland birds of all kinds, including bald eagles.

One of the great historical myths of our country is Benjamin Franklin proposing the national emblem to be a wild turkey. After the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it tasked Benjamin Franklin—along with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—with designing a seal to represent the new country.

Given the opportunity to choose a national symbol, the Founding Father never suggested a turkey. According to his notes, Franklin proposed an image of Moses standing on the shore and extending his hand over the sea with the motto, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” While the committee selected the scene from the Book of Exodus for the reverse of the seal, the Continental Congress was not impressed and tabled the concept.

It wasn’t until 1782 when the Great Seal of the United States with the bald eagle as its centerpiece was approved.