When Bald Eagles Return to Milwaukee, Can We Ensure Their Safety?

Bald eagles are the very symbol of solitude.

It’s probably only a matter of time before bald eagles start nesting in Milwaukee, experts say. After all, the Cream City is in the only county out of 72 in Wisconsin left without these magnificent creatures and offers plenty of habitable land in parks and near lakes.

But do not raise your celebratory beer glass just yet, Milwaukeeans. This immigration could harm these eagles if we fail to get our act together.

Marge Gibson, co-founder of the Antigo-based rehabilitation organization Raptor Education Group, has spent 40 years working with eagles, treating a wide array of human-caused injuries: lead poisonings, shootings, car accidents, electrocutions, fishing line injuries and more. With the help of a foster parent eagle, she also treats eaglets who fell out of the nest too early due to human or dog disturbance.

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She knows firsthand the harm that can come to bald eagles that nest closer to urban areas. “Eagles do better without people around,” Gibson says. “They have adapted to more urban environments, but that is not always a good thing. If we want to see their magnificence and enjoy them, we have to play a role in keeping the environment safe.”

There was a time when conservationists would have laughed at the idea of bald eagles nesting near cities. In 1974, there were only 107 eagle nests in the state, nearly all in the pine forests of northern Wisconsin. The eagle population had been decimated by poachers and DDT, a pesticide that made their eggs inviable.

Since then, DDT was banned, bald eagles were designated an endangered species, and other state and federal protections were enacted. The eagles staged a quick comeback, being removed from the state endangered species list in 1997 and the federal list 10 years later. Last year’s count in Wisconsin found 1,684 nests.


Eagles By the Numbers

175

Number of occupied eagle nests in Vilas County in 2019, the highest of any Wisconsin county. Rounding out the top 5 were Oneida County with 150 nests, Grant County (92), Crawford County (90) and Burnett County (67).

1782

Year the bald eagle was declared the national symbol. The eagle population then is estimated at up to 100,000 in the current contiguous U.S.; the last federal count in 2006 found nearly 20,000.

6,000

Weight in pounds of the largest eagle nest ever recorded. The Florida nest was 9 1⁄2 feet wide and 20 feet deep. A typical nest is about 5 feet wide and weighs up to 1,000 pounds.


This population increase illustrated how highly adaptable bald eagles are, according to Sumner Matteson, avian ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. They’ll eat anything from carrion to live ducks, and they can nest in diverse habitats, though they prefer spots near open water. With their resurgence and all the eagle-friendly habitat in Wisconsin, our state now has one of the highest densities of nesting bald eagles in the world, boosting tourism and inspiring citizens to become more involved with conservation efforts.

Still, Lindsay Obermeier, raptor program and animal ambassador director at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, is concerned about the risks inherent to urban nesting. “Bald eagles are a charismatic species that will inspire more people to get involved in their environment,” she says. “But I worry that the eagles will struggle with the stress of human contact; they truly are solitary birds.”

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To respect the bald eagles’ solitude and ensure safe immigration to Milwaukee, we can take some practical steps. Gibson stresses on-the-ground tactics, like avoiding lead ammunition and fishing sinkers (eagles may consume animals or fish that were killed by these materials), disposing of fishing line and hooks in secure containers and controlling pets so that they do not chase after baby eagles.

Jeb Barzen, an ecologist involved with the Sauk City-based Ferry Blu Eagle Council, says it is important to advocate for eagle safety by appealing to local officials to protect nests, supporting rehabilitators and contacting the DNR violation tip line (800-847- 9367) to report harmful activity.

Above all, Gibson emphasizes the importance of refraining from activities that would cause bald eagles to become dependent on humans, like feeding them fish. “These activities make them trust people more than they should,” she says.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June/July issue

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Since interning for the magazine in spring of 2017, Anna has contributed to both the print publication and website. She has covered topics from women in the workplace to communal gardens and also writes guides to life in Milwaukee. Outside of writing for the magazine, Anna is going back to school at UW-Milwaukee to work towards a career in genetic counseling.