GREENFIELD — To say Connie Schmidt is enjoying her new neighbors is an understatement.
Two majestic American bald eagles have made their home east of Greenfield city limits, having built a nest in 2014 for what is anticipated to be the hatching of baby eagles any day now if they aren’t already.
“I think they’re awesome,” said Schmidt, who can see the birds through binoculars from her front porch. “We first saw them New Year’s Day a year ago when they were scoping things out where they wanted their residence. It was fun last year watching them build their nest.”
But this year is a whole new chapter for the eagle family. There’s a lot more activity, neighbors say, and while nobody is quite sure what exactly is in that huge, high nest, bets are on a new generation of the nation’s symbol of freedom.
The birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, with cars pulling over for a quick picture. And while local officials urge caution and etiquette — be careful of slowed or stopped vehicles, and don’t get too close to the birds — it’s clear most want to be as welcoming to the birds as possible to ensure they return to their nest each year.
“We’re happy to have them here,” said Scott Johnson, local conservation officer for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “It’s something you don’t get to see very often. Until everyone gets used to seeing them here and they’re not slamming on their brakes every time they drive by, that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
Johnson said the eagles likely arrived in early 2014. They’re the first recorded nesting pair in Hancock County in at least 100 years.
The bald eagle, named the national bird in 1782, became endangered following World War II, primarily from the devastating effects of pesticides and the loss of wetland habitat, according to the DNR. But recovery of eagles in Indiana came in the late 1980s, when 73 eaglets from Wisconsin and Alaska were raised and released at Monroe Lake.
The birds were removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2007.
Today, there are between 200 and 250 breeding pairs of bald eagles in 77 of Indiana’s 92 counties, according to the DNR.
And while it hasn’t been confirmed, Johnson said last year’s work on building a nest is probably because this year the eagle couple in Greenfield is expecting a new brood. Eagle-hatching in this region generally happens between March and June, but the baby birds might have already arrived: Schmidt has seen the eagles bobbing their heads up and down in their nest as if they are feeding their young.
For folks like Charlotte Swaner, the birds are magnificent. Swaner lives in an eastside neighborhood and wondered as she drove by daily why there were large, black hawks high in the tree — only to be corrected by her husband one day.
“I said, ‘Stop! Turn around! I want to take their pictures,’” she said. “It was fantastic. I couldn’t believe it.”
Linda Parsons hasn’t seen the birds at their nest but got a visit from one in her downtown Greenfield yard recently. It probably had something to do with squirrels playing nearby. Parsons, who regularly watches eagles online through nest cameras, was excited for her visitor.
“I tried to get my camera but couldn’t get there fast enough,” she said. “It was just a land and take off-type of thing.”
Parsons hopes folks respect the birds. Neighbors in the area can do a lot to make sure people don’t trespass on the private property and get too close, she said.
“I just hope people would keep their distance, leave them alone, let them nest, raise their young and populate the area,” Parsons said.
There have been a few occasions where Johnson said people were scolded for crossing the line. The fence on the private property is marked “no trespassing,” but a few eager photographers have wanted to get closer to take pictures.
And then there were questions over recent razing of trees near the eagles. Johnson said the property owner took down ash trees that were killed by the Emerald Ash Borer. A private property owner can decide to take down trees, he said, so long as the tree in which the eagles are nesting is not disturbed.
There are federal laws to protect the bald eagles. Taking a bald eagle, including its parts (even a feather), nests or eggs, is prohibited. Nesting sites also are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940; sites cannot be altered to bother an eagle or interfere with normal breeding or feeding habits. The demolition of nearby trees, Johnson emphasized, did not deter the birds from returning.
Johnson hopes it stays that way: if people are respectful of the site and keep their distance, he said, the eagles will stick around.
Nathan Yazel, a biologist for the DNR, said eagles are pretty loyal to their nesting sites and will return year after year, adding onto their nest and making it bigger for several rounds of eggs.
“Just give them their space around their nests, and try not to disturb them too much, and they’ll probably be there for a long time,” Yazel said.
Neighbor Scott Brown said there seems to be a lot more interest this year because they birds are more visible — it’s the time of year just before spring leaves will conceal them.
“It’s pretty cool to look our your front window and see a couple bald eagles,” Brown said. “When they’re out, you can tell the traffic definitely picks up on the street and everything … In the spring and summer (last year), you couldn’t see them much because the foliage came out.”
Schmidt, who said the traffic isn’t too bad around her neighborhood when the eagles are around, hopes people take a moment and just enjoy the birds.
“You can watch them soar on the drafts of the wind, and you can see them sitting next to each other up in that tree, and they’re doing their eagle talk back and forth to each other,” Schmidt said. “We enjoy them, and I’m sure everyone else is enjoying them as well. Hopefully if there’s someone who gets upset because they’ve slowed down in front of them, maybe they’ll stop and look up and see why because it’s a pretty neat experience. We’ve never had this kind of nature here.”
Bald eagle nesting has been documented in 77 of Indiana’s 92 counties; the current population is likely around 200 to 250 breeding pairs. The duo in Greenfield was documented with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in 2014 and was the first documented pair locally in more than a century.
The bald eagle, named the national bird in 1782, was endangered following World War II, primarily from the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides. In Indiana, the loss of wetland habitat contributed to the drastic decline.
In 2007, the bird was declared recovered and removed from the federal endangered species list. Indiana followed suit in 2008 after reaching a goal of 50 nesting pairs.
From 1900 to 1988, there were no known eagles nesting in Indiana. The recovery of Indiana’s eagles came from restoration efforts in the late 1980s, when 73 eaglets from Wisconsin and Alaska were raised and released at Monroe Lake.
The body of an adult eagle is 3 to 3.5 feet in length, and the wingspan is 6 to 7.5 feet. Males weigh 8 to 9 pounds; females weigh 10 to 14 pounds.
Adult eagles do not begin to nest until they are 4 or 5 years old. Eagles mate for life and return each year to the same location to nest and breed.
Bald eagles usually lay two eggs, but sometimes one or three. In this region, eggs are typically laid February through April, with hatching happening sometime between March and June. Incubation is by both parents for 34 to 36 days. At least one parent remains with the young hatchlings almost constantly for the first two weeks. Both parents bring prey to the nest, tearing food into small pieces and feeding it directly to the young at first. First flight is between 10 and 12 weeks.
Sources: Indiana Department of Natural Resources, audobon.org
Federal law is strict to protect bald eagles. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibits anyone without a permit from “taking” bald eagles, including their parts, nests or eggs. That means you can’t even possess a bald eagle feather (unless you’re an enrolled member of a federally-recognized Native American tribe – there’s an exception in the law that Native Americans can use eagle feathers for religious and cultural purposes).
The law also prohibits people from altering previously-used nest sites even when eagles aren’t present if, upon the eagle’s return, the alterations agitate or bother an eagle that it interferes with normal breeding, feeding or sheltering habits.
A violation of the federal law can result in a fine of $100,000, imprisonment for a year, or both. Penalties increase substantially for additional offenses.
The National Eagle Repository is the collection site for all things bald eagle, including dead birds and feathers. The Colorado-based organization, which is a division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has an inventory of eagles, parts and feathers and distributes feathers to Native Americans. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/eaglerepository.
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service