Once endangered, eagle population soaring in Michigan

News - Local Detroit

Bald eagles typically prey on fish, but they also are scavengers, eating roadkill and rodents. About 700 pairs are living in Michigan. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Josh Katzenstein, Detroit News staff writer

Since they were removed from the endangered species list in 2007, bald eagles have flourished in Michigan and across the United States.

In fact, their population surge has happened almost too quickly.

With more than 700 pairs flying around the state in 2011, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimations, bald eagles have run out of prime habitat — typically cottonwood trees near a body of water with ample fish. Eagles normally live miles apart, but occasionally nest closer together if there are enough resources to share, biologist Matthew Stuber of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Eagles have recently found homes near power plants, including DTE Energy's Monroe and Fermi 2 facilities, prompting DTE to have a naming contest, with four young eagles being named Spirit, Freedom, Honor and Grace on July 1. Other eagles have nested miles from bodies of water, and 13 pairs call Monroe or Wayne counties home.

"If eagles are moving into these places, it probably means that a lot of the good places are taken," Stuber said.

The population of bald eagles plummeted in the 1950s mainly because of widespread use of the pesticide DDT, and only 487 pairs existed in the United States in 1963. A 1972 U.S. ban discontinued use of DDT, and a concerted effort to educate the public about the birds has helped the species come back.

The increased number of Michigan eagles — 630 pairs in 2010 compared with 85 in 1970 — doesn't mean the bird has lost its appeal among bird-watchers.

(Detroit News)

"Most people wouldn't bat an eye if they saw a turkey vulture fly by, but a distinctive bald eagle will draw attention," U.S. Fish and Wildfire Service biologist Dave Best said.

Bird-watcher Leonard Weber, 69, of Detroit sees a lot more eagles than he used to, but never tires of seeing the "beautiful" and "majestic" creatures.

"Most people have still never seen an eagle in the wild," said Weber, president of the Detroit Audubon Society. "For most people, it's still an exciting thing to see."

Weber goes to metroparks around Lake Erie for many of his bird-watches and credits the healthy environment for the increased bald eagle population.

Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, said the Clean Water Act from 1972 helped provide better habitat for the birds.

"The bald eagles are a sign of the health of our waterways," Butcher said.

In his position, Butcher talks to many bird-watchers and said the birds are still a treat because they "have the imagination of people."

"There's something about an eagle that really gets people going," he said. "It makes people's day when they get to enjoy eagles."

'Ultimate reality show'

The Raptor Resource Project based in Iowa has helped with the education effort. The nonprofit began videotaping eagles in 2003 and has since brought streaming video of the birds to millions of viewers, in what director Bob Anderson calls "the ultimate reality show."

Similar efforts have shown how eagles live while helping get a better understanding of the birds.

The videos show the birds prey on fish, but also are scavengers who often eat roadkill and rodents.

The education efforts have taught people to avoid bothering the birds, Anderson said, which is why some eagles have found homes in well-populated areas.

They no longer fear the humans below, who at one time shot the birds.

"The return of the bald eagle to America is a true conservation success story," Anderson said.