GREENFIELD — American bald eagles are often a sight reserved for hikers, naturalists and wildlife photographers, but since last winter, local residents have seen several flying over Hancock County.
Statewide, the number of nesting eagles has soared in the past two decades, from fewer than a hundred in the 1990s to nearly 250 in 2015, officials from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources said. Local residents would like to believe a nest in Greenfield is a sign that the birds are here to stay.
After spotting the first pair of eagles known to have nested in Greenfield in more than a century, residents reported sighting three eaglets near the nest this summer, at least one of which is old enough to fly.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” Indiana Conservation Officer Scott Johnson said. “It’s something you just don’t expect to see, especially right here in Greenfield.”
The resurgence is the result of a statewide effort to restore the animals’ habitat, which was once threatened by harmful runoff from chemicals like DDT in the 1960s and early ’70s, said Nathan Yazel, a habitat biologist for the DNR.
The birds were poisoned by the chemical after eating tainted fish from bodies of water contaminated by the runoff, Yazel said.
In 1985, the Indiana Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program began an eagle reintroduction effort with 73 eaglets brought in from Wisconsin and Alaska. By the mid-1990s, about a dozen nesting territories were established, the first of which was at Lake Monroe near Bloomington, according to the DNR.
Eagles feed primarily on fish, Yazel said, but they will also catch rabbits, squirrels and other small animals.
Since arriving, the eagles have attracted plenty of attention from residents.
Jason Lee of Greenfield said he stops by the nest site about once a week to photograph the birds.
“It’s just one of those amazing things in nature that not everybody gets the chance to see this close to home,” he said.
Lee, an avid wildlife photographer, said he used to drive to Martinsville to spot the birds of prey. Now, he said, it’s a quick 2-mile drive from his home to reach the nest.
Wildlife officials caution, however, that eagles like their privacy.
“Eagles like to be left alone, and it’s best to just leave them be,” Yazel said. “What they need most to thrive in their habitat is a peaceful nest site and a place to fish.”
The eagles also reside on private property. Johnson cautions that any attempts to get too close to the birds might involve trespassing, and active harassment of the birds could constitute violations of federal and state wildlife regulations.
As nesting eagles around the state continue to reproduce, Yazel said, he anticipates the population to continue growing for the foreseeable future.
“As long as they have a good supply of food around, they’ll thrive,” he said. “They’re one of the top predators in the food chain, so they do pretty well on their own.”
Information on the Indiana eagle reintroduction program is available at in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3321.htm/.