The New Neighbors

I’m a casual bird watcher. I feed them in my Minneapolis back yard and keep lists of avian visitors there and at the nearby lake. It’s pretty amazing what shows up. My back yard list has 54 species, plus 42 more seen at the lake. Some are common, many are rarely seen and it’s a gift to experience this in the middle of a city.

In recent years the cherry on the sundae has been resurgence of the bald eagle. Seeing them in town has become almost routine, but never grows old because they’re so majestic.

My wife and I like to walk down to the lake in the morning. Last fall we began to see a pair of eagles, often perched in the same tall tree along the parkway. This went on for awhile.

The house two doors down has a pair of big cottonwood trees in the front yard. One day there was an eagle perched in the top branches. Soon I noticed two of them. This had to be the same pair.

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One of the eagles likes to sit on this branch on the west side of the tree.

We kept seeing them together, on a branch that extended out over the street. They’d roost there overnight. A car was parked directly under them. It didn’t move for a couple of weeks and we never found out who owned it, but soon it was completely covered in white eagle poop. By covered I mean that you couldn’t see out the windshield. That was late October. The leaves fell. Along came the city leaf sweeping crews and the poop-covered car was tagged and towed.

By now my neighbors and I were pretty sure the eagles had picked out a nesting spot, but would it happen and when? On the internet it said eagles in the south started nest building in the spring, but it happened earlier the farther north you went, December or January in Minnesota.

We got past the holidays and sure enough, the eagles started to bring in sticks sporadically. They had selected a particular crotch high in the cottonwood, which I learned is part of the “super canopy”, unusually tall trees preferred by eagles.

Eagles apparently break off small branches with their beaks. I also saw them snap off branches with their talons while in flight.

Until you see it happening, you don’t realize how challenging it is to start a nest. The eagles kept missing, resulting in dropped branches all over the boulevard. Some accumulated in a tree crotch directly under the nest site.

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The eagles missed the nest with these branches.

This went on at a leisurely pace through January, without much progress evident. Then it stopped.

No nest building happened in February, a rough month for weather, hitting almost 30 below with record snow. With the lakes frozen over, I wondered (and still wonder) what the eagles were finding to eat. We saw them less often.

Was this a failed attempt to nest? That’s what I thought as a month passed with no activity. Then came March. In the last couple of weeks construction has resumed at an accelerated rate. There’s no question anymore–it’s happening.

One of the pair brings in sticks. The other stands in the nest and arranges the new materials. Eventually they’ll line it with feathers and other soft materials. It’s currently about three feet across but should get much bigger.

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The nest seen from my yard.

I’ve read that nests can weight 1000 pounds, and tend to be reused and expanded each year. The tree crotch they chose looks a little iffy for that kind of weight. But I’m hoping for the best, because what a privilege to have a front row seat to the kind of thing that used to only appear in nature documentaries.

Full disclosure: The cover photo showing the two eagles on the nest came from the internet. Because of the angle, I can’t get this shot. When they’re both on the nest, only their heads show.



Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.