Friday, June 29, 2007

Fly like an eagle

Everybody of a certain age has a bald eagle story.

I spent six of the first eight years of my life in Buffalo, N.Y. Growing up there, the bald eagle had almost mythic significance to my young mind because it was a symbol in more ways than one. Not only did it represent our country; it was vanishingly rare. You never saw one except on television. It wasn't like cardinals, for instance, which are the state bird of seven states precisely because they're everywhere. The eagle's very scarcity added to its mythology, as well as providing a potent lesson in environmentalism, conservation and the fragility and interconnectedness of life.

In the summer of 1976 -- another interesting piece of symbolism, being the bicentennial year -- my family moved to Wisconsin, far closer to eagle habitat. And as my brothers and I grew older we started making annual treks to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.

There we finally caught glimpses of eagles in the wild -- huge birds, black wings outstretched, seemingly headless because their white skulls often blended into the brightness of the sky as they circled far above us. Each encounter was a moment of awe and wonder. Merely seeing the puffy shape of an empty eagle's nest, high up in some ancient dead tree, was enough to provoke excitement. It was almost like spotting a Yeti or a Sasquatch -- finally meeting up with a legendary but seldom seen king of the wild places.

I attended college in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities. But my glimpses of eagles remained confined to the still-frequent trips to the Boundary Waters.

When I was 25, our parents took us on a trip to Alaska. One day we decided to go deep-sea fishing. We arrived at the dock and piled on to the charter boat. As it eased out into the channel leading to the ocean, I saw them: eagles, dozens of them, perched in the trees lining the channel. Juveniles, adults, pairs and singles. They were there for the same reason we were: fish. And they were there in droves.

The fishing was awful, at least for me: I caught one tiny rockfish, which appeared to have been hooked accidentally as it ignored my line. But the fishing expedition turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip, thanks to the eagles.

My career took me around the country, to places like New Jersey and Florida. The latter is another eagle-dense state, but I didn't see many there, since I spent most of my time in urban areas. Several years later, though, I landed a job back in the Twin Cities, and we returned to Minnesota.

We first lived in Minneapolis, which had lots of sparrows but no eagles. But we drove back and forth to Wisconsin a lot to visit my parents, and increasingly spotted eagles circling far above the highway. We thought that was cool, a small sign of the comeback we'd been reading about.

Then we moved to the western suburbs, pursuing a better school district and more affordable housing. We found ourselves surrounded by lakes and wetlands -- and eagles.

Now, despite living in a densely populated suburb, we see eagles every day. A nesting pair lives a couple miles from our house. Another lives somewhere in the opposite direction; I see them overhead in the morning as I drive my daughters to school and day care.

To me and my wife -- raised during a time when eagles were on the brink of extinction -- this is endlessly amazing. We never tire of seeing them, craning our necks or pulling the car over to the side of the road merely to watch.

Our daughters like eagles, too. But they don't understand our fascination, and they likely never will. They see eagles every day. When we go to the Minnesota Zoo -- a not-infrequent occurence -- we always attend the bird show, where they get to see a bald eagle up close.

They like it when I point out wildlife as we drive along. But I've lost all credibility with them as far as eagles are concerned.

"Look up there!" I'll say.

"WHAT? WHAT?" they'll ask excitedly, squirming around in their seats to get a look. "What is it?"

"A bald eagle!"

"Oh." They'll immediately stop squirming and go back to annoying each other.

So I'm very happy that the bald eagle is officially back from the brink -- removed yesterday from the federal government's list of threatened species. And I'm glad that they plan to continue managing the eagle population so that it doesn't end up back on the list -- even though that appears to means that the Minnesota man whose lawsuit prompted the action still won't be able to develop his eagle-infested property despite winning the suit.

But I'm sad that my daughters will never share our sense of wonder at their existence. They'll grow up bemused by their parents' eagle fixation, never quite understanding the experience that underlies it.

Still, it's a good problem to have. Welcome back, bald eagle. May you soar for many years more.

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