Now the long horns are gone,
And the drovers are gone,
The Comanches are gone,
And the outlaws are gone,
Geronimo is gone,
And Sam Bass is gone,
And the lion is gone,
And the red wolf is gone.
-Don Edwards, Coyotes
But the eagles stayed on. That is remarkable, because America’s bald eagle population was nearly ground into dust by the early 70s owing to the effects of DDT. The insidious pesticide inhibited the apex predator birds’ ability to accumulate calcium, making their eggshells as brittle as sugar glass. At their lowest point, only 400 breeding pairs of bald eagles remained in the lower 48 states.
We took stock of this, and decided that we’d rather keep the bald eagle, a symbol of freedom, national pride, and general majestic birditude, around. You can no longer buy DDT, but you can find 2,300 breeding pairs of bald eagles in Minnesota alone. This feat has proven that we genuinely can conserve an endangered species if devote ourselves to it.
The National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN is dedicated to educating the public on so beautiful a bird and its roles in the environment and human culture. The great indoor facility houses five birds of Jove, ambassadors to their species, which you can admire far closer up than you could at any zoo or aviary. No layer of glass or mesh separates you from the four bald eagles and Donald, the single golden eagle, that live there. To hold the earnest yellow gaze of such a creature, even for only a moment, is worth the trip alone.
You can not explain the concept of majesty to a bald eagle, so it allows itself some funny quirks. Although Hollywood would have you believe that a bald eagle emits a shrill “skree,” that is actually the red-tailed hawk’s cry. In reality an eagle’s ululations sound like a child scuffing their sneakers against a freshly waxed gymnasium floor, or an ungreased screen door flapping open and shut in the wind. You might mistake it for a seagull’s yawp. Watching the bald eagle eat is a treat as well. While we would imagine that our national bird carries entire buffalo away in its beak, it mostly prefers fish. These the bald eagles are fed in droves at the National Eagle Center, which they daintily grasp in their talons to tear measured nibbles or enormous chunks out of. The golden eagle, which eschews fish, gets rabbit and quail — a true epicure. Daily weighings prevent the eagles from breaking their perches.
Once you have admired the birds themselves, you can set about the National Eagle Center’s two floors of interactive exhibits. These include a life-size replica of a bald eagle’s nest, a model of the sprawling Mississippi Valley watershed, a test to see how your vision compares to an eagle’s (it is worse), and instruction on how to identify our native raptors. You’ll no longer have to embarrass yourself by mistaking a kestrel for a falcon while you’re in mixed company.
The bald eagle’s role in artistic expression is demonstrated through the vast collection of Preston Cook, who for half a century amassed American works that the depict the bird. You may view Andy Warhol’s Bald Eagle 296, one of one dozen pieces that the artist was commissioned to portray endangered species in. (Today, the bald eagle is the only of Warhol’s subjects that is no longer endangered.) The National Eagle Center also features exhibits that explore the native Dakota people’s connection to the majestic raptors.
The birds of the National Eagle Center do get around. They regularly visit schools, VA centers, and festivals to help their keepers spread the message of conservation to which they owe their existence. I say that it is best to visit them at their home in Wabasha, and if you go to the National Eagle Center on a weekend this March you can join the 27th annual SOAR with the Eagles festival, which features flying bird shows, wild eagle viewing, and more to celebrate all things raptors. Go to nationaleaglecenter.org to plan your visit this spring!
By David Scheller