FARGO — As recently as the early 2000s, North Dakota had less than a dozen active bald eagle nesting sites in the state.

The number of nesting sites today is around 300, and it is not unusual to see the majestic birds in the skies above North Dakota, particularly in prime habitat area along the Missouri River in western North Dakota and the Red River on the eastern edge of the state.

Minnesota, too, experienced a boom in bald eagle numbers over the past decade. Officials tout the state as having the most eagles among the lower 48 states, though other states have made competing boasts.

But Minnesota and North Dakota aren't alone.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reported bald eagle numbers nationwide have quadrupled since 2009, growing to 71,400 nesting pairs and a total eagle population of about 316,000.

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The report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated bald eagles were once on the brink of extinction, reaching an all-time low of 417 known nesting pairs in 1963 in the lower 48 states.

Sandra Johnson, a conservation biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said a number of factors help explain the dramatic comeback of the bald eagle in the state and across the nation.

An adult bald eagle. Photo credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
An adult bald eagle. Photo credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

A big reason, she said, was the banning in the 1970s of the pesticide DDT, which became concentrated in fish that in turn were eaten by eagles.

Once in the birds, DDT caused fragile eggshells, leading to fewer eagles being born.

Johnson said another reason for the growth in eagle numbers since their population low point in the 1960s was the introduction of state and federal laws prohibiting the killing of raptors.

Improved habitat also helped, she said, noting North Dakota's landscape has changed much over the last 100 years, including the expansion of things like windbreaks on agricultural land.

Bald eagle nesting sites in North Dakota in 2010. Image credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Bald eagle nesting sites in North Dakota in 2010. Image credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Eagle nesting sites in North Dakota in 2020. Image credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Eagle nesting sites in North Dakota in 2020. Image credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

"We have a lot more big trees in places where we never used to have big trees," Johnson said.

"There's actually just a lot of potential nesting habitat in the state now versus in the 1800s," she added.

Johnson said right now is a good time to see eagles out and about, as many are stopping in the area during their annual migration.

Eagles are also sitting on eggs right now, and she stressed that while it is exciting to see an eagle on a nest it is important that people not disturb the birds.

The natural range of the bald eagle in North Dakota is fairly broad. Image credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
The natural range of the bald eagle in North Dakota is fairly broad. Image credit: North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

If that happens, there is a chance eagles will leave their nests long enough for cold temperatures to kill unborn eaglets in their shells, Johnson said.

"It's pretty nice weather, but if it gets cold it wouldn't take long for those eggs to freeze if someone flushes an eagle off a nest," she added.

Johnson said if someone spots nesting eagles and would like to observe them, they need to be respectful of private property and also careful they don't upset the birds.

"Just sit in your vehicle if you see a nest and watch them from your vehicle with binoculars," she advised.

For more information about bald eagles in North Dakota, or to fill out a form to report a nesting location, go to www.gf.nd.gov/wildlife/nest-reports/bald-eagle.

Minnesota eagle numbers among highest in lower 48

Nationwide, bald eagles were among the first birds named to the federal endangered species list shortly after the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.

At the time, it was thought about 417 mating pairs existed in the entire lower 48 states.

By 2007, eagle numbers nationwide were so healthy that the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list, though many protections remain in place for the birds.

And when it comes to bald eagles, few states can rival Minnesota's success story.

In 2017, Minnesota had nearly 10,000 nesting pairs, and its bald eagle population was believed to be the largest among the lower 48 states.

The raptor's recovery in Minnesota has been so strong the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stopped doing surveys several years ago.

However, in the interest of conservation awareness, the DNR continues to operate a bald eagle cam that documents the nesting habits of a pair of bald eagles.

The nesting pair is currently watching over two eggs that were laid in February.

Those eggs could hatch at anytime, said Lori Naumann, who operates the eagle cam for the DNR's nongame wildlife program.

Naumann said the video feed is watched by people in all 50 states as well as in at least 180 countries around the world, including in Vietnam where classes use it for curriculum.

Based on the most recent numbers available, she said, it is believed Minnesota has at least 19,000 mature bald eagles, but that isn't the complete picture.

"There are all kinds of immature bald eagles out there that are not of breeding age, and they don't reach breeding age until five years of age," Naumann said.

She noted that Minnesota officials like to claim the state has the most bald eagles of any state among the lower 48, but added: "It's kind of a tight match between us and Florida. If you ask Florida, they're going to say they're higher."

While eagles are doing well in Minnesota, Naumann said areas of concern remain.

"Certainly lead in the environment is another factor that affects their population," Naumann said, adding eagles can ingest small fragments of lead ammunition contained in gut piles left behind by deer hunters and later die from lead poisoning.

"It only takes parts per million of lead to kill a bald eagle," she said.

When it comes to the eagle cam, the bald eagle pair featured during last year's mating season were dubbed Sid and Nancy by fans of the website.

Naumann said Sid did not show up this year, and Nancy teamed up instead with a young male bird whose lack of maturity is marked by some brown feathers on his head.

Naumann said that after she made an observation that the brown feathers made the young male eagle look dirty, fans of the eagle cam dubbed him Harry, as in Dirty Harry.