Yo Chicago, I’ve got a riddle for you: What has a bald head, symbolizes freedom, tried to bite Donald Trump and is in your backyard? No, no. Not Bernie Sanders, you hippy. It’s our favorite symbol of America, the bald eagle. Bird watching just got a whole lot more patriotic, my friends.
According to the Urban Wildlife Institute, there have been reports of bald eagles in Cook County recently. This may come as a surprise to those of us living in the city who think that the extent of our bird experience ends with pigeons and sparrows. But the bald eagle was once common in northeastern Illinois, like, a long time ago.
The eagle was no longer breeding within the region by the early 1900s, and for a long time was an endangered species, being upgraded to a threatened species until 2007 when America’s favorite bird was eventually taken off both lists. Now it looks like the bald eagle has found a home right outside of Chi-town.
So what’s the deal with the bald eagles in Cook County? Well, to learn more about them and what we should do, we spoke to Mason Fidino of the Urban Wildlife Institute.
Hi Mason, thanks so much for speaking with us. Tell us about the Urban Wildlife Institute. Where are you based and what kind of work do you do?
Urban Wildlife Institute is based out of Lincoln Park Zoo. We have a lot of diverse specialties, from reintroduction ecology to disease and landscape ecology, but one overarching focus is that we study the interaction between urban development and the natural ecosystem so that we can better learn how to minimize human wildlife conflict.
So, tell us about these bald eagle sightings. Are bald eagles hanging out in Chicago? What areas are they being spotted in?
While not as common as many of our other birds of prey, such as peregrine falcons, bald eagles are sometimes spotted within Cook County or even the city of Chicago itself. Bald eagles will predominately feed on fish, so any unfrozen and large body of water has the potential for bald eagle sightings.
There have been many sightings of eagles nesting in some areas of Cook County, such as the Tampier Slough in the southwest region of the county. However, most of our sightings happen during the winter while eagles are traveling around and looking for foraging opportunities. These eagles may nest somewhere else, but will travel around in response to food scarcity.
Are these sightings unusual? Is the area a natural habitat for bald eagles?
I think these are actually going to become more common. The bald eagle has been a huge success story for the Endangered Species Act. It was listed as an endangered species in 1967 due to illegal hunting and DDT, but its population has rebounded so much that it was delisted in 2007.
Pretty much the entirety of the contiguous U.S., Canada and Alaska are within the species distributional range.
How complicated or diverse of an ecosystem is Cook County?
While we may think of cities as nothing but concrete, Chicago is one of the most unique and diverse cities in the U.S. Even though Chicago is the third largest city in the country, it has a gigantic network of forest preserves that have been present for over 100 years, which helps contribute a significant amount of green space and wildlife habitat to the city of Chicago. This, in turn, makes it an excellent location to study how wildlife adapt to urban landscapes.
What can people do if they spot an eagle or a nest?
Enjoy from a distance. It is illegal to get closer than 500 yards to an eagle nest.
Are there any active nests that you’re keeping an eye on?
Nope, there are not. But if there is one that is close by, you would 100 percent expect me to check it out from a safe distance with a spotting scope.
How can we use social media to spread awareness of these eagles?
While the bald eagle is a wonderful flagship species, I think it is more important to work toward reminding people that cities are ecosystems too, and that in order for us to solve our current biodiversity problem, we need to start considering ways to make cities part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
To that end, I would suggest that people tweet and share photos of the wildlife they see in cities. For our account, @LPZ_UWI (Urban Wildlife Institute), I often use the hashtag #ChicagoWildlife or participate in our citizen science project at www.chicagowildlifewatch.org.
This is an exciting time for nature lovers and patriots alike. For a symbol of America that was once endangered and at risk of extinction to come back in droves is inspiring. It’s even an honor that some of the species have chosen to nest around Chicago.
Of course there’s a lot of work to do to make sure that bald eagles stay and thrive in this diverse urban ecosystem. We as citizens need to do our part in protecting and preserving the things that make our environment so beautiful.
If you want more information or want to know how you can help out, be sure to reach out to the Urban Wildlife Institute or one of the many environmental organizations all over Chicago.
And if there’s one more reason to love bald eagles, it’s this.