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Michigan bald eagles: Born to soar | News

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Michigan bald eagles: Born to soar
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MUSKEGON COUNTY, Mich. (Lansing State Journal)- Ninety feet above the ground in the branches of a towering white pine, two female eaglets are testing their wings.

"As they get older, they'll stand on the edge of the nest and look down a lot," said Kevin Klco, supervisor at Muskegon State Park, where the two young eagles hatched in March.

Nurtured by their parents with a diet of fish, small animals and smaller birds, the young eagles will start flying with the adult birds soon, learning to hunt and fish for themselves.

Eagles are, of course, a national symbol.

But even if they weren't, they'd still stand out among other birds of prey.

They mate for life.

They have a wingspan of up to 8 feet.

They build nests that are high (note the 90 feet, above), huge (6 feet across) and reusable year after year.

"They're so impressive," said Matt Stuber, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's East Lansing office. "The way they can soar on the air like they're just floating up there. It's especially awe-inspiring with eagles because they're so big."

Bald eagles were nearly wiped from the Lower Peninsula in the 1950s and 1960s due to widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. Among other things, DDT exposure weakened the shells of eggs.

In 1972, 83 occupied nests were counted in the entire state, two thirds of them in the Upper Peninsula.

By 2011, Michigan had 648 known eagle nests, Stuber said, and the number is expected to top 700 this year. Eagles prefer to live near water.

"We've seen some interesting things out over Snug Harbor, where they'll bring in a large fish," Klco said of the Muskegon eagles. "One of our staff saw a bald eagle take a seagull right out of the air."

The two eaglets were tagged earlier this spring by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of a program that continues to monitor the effects of pesticide on the huge birds of prey.

A team of researchers brought the eaglets down to earth, weighed them, measured wingspans and talons, took blood and feather samples and tagged their legs.

The tags also will help researchers monitor the eagles' travels over the next five years or so as they mature. They could fly to other states, Canada or stay closer to home.

In five to six years, they'll grow the distinctive white feathers on their heads and be ready to settle down and build their own nests.

"Eagles are a migratory species, but many of the individuals who breed here in Michigan probably don't leave," Stuber said. "We don't have a really good handle on what they do in the wintertime."

Some may go south; others congregate near Monroe, south of Detroit, where warm water from a power plant keep water and fish flowing through the winter.

Klco said the nesting pair in Muskegon State Park usually leaves the nest in late fall, returning in February to spruce it up for a new set of eggs .

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