GREENFIELD — Hancock County, the eagles have landed.
For the first time in perhaps a century, a pair of American bald eagles have begun nesting near Greenfield, conservation officials say.
“They came in this winter,” said Indiana Conservation Officer Scott Johnson. “And they’re the first documented nesting pair in the county.”
Greenfield resident Don Cottey, who is fascinated by the big birds and observes them regularly, said he first noticed the pair about six months ago and has been watching them ever since.
Though it’s not completely unusual to see Haliaeetus leucocephalis soaring above the area’s ponds and wetlands, a nesting pair hasn’t been seen here since at least the late 19th century, when the birds stopped nesting in the state, said Nathan Yazel, a biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The eagle population further declined to dangerous levels in the 1950s and 1960s as loss of wetland habitat and pesticides took their toll.
“The DDT (an agricultural pesticide) really got them,” Yazel said.
The birds were poisoned by the chemical after eating tainted fish from bodies of water contaminated with DDT runoff from farm fields.
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.
“In the last three or four years, there’ve been a lot more sightings around here, but for the most part they’re just passing through,” Johnson said. “Eagles will travel a good distance for food.”
These days, the state has a healthy eagle population.
“We have a lot of eagles in Indiana,” Yazel said. “The latest figures I have from the end of last year show there are nesting pairs in 68 of the state’s 92 counties.”
Biologists estimate there are some 200 nesting pairs in the state, and that doesn’t take into account the non-breeding birds younger than 4 years old.
“It’s gotten to be so many that it’s hard to get accurate numbers,” Yazel said. “It’s a really neat success story.”
Observers say Greenfield’s birds – eagles mate for life and usually return annually to the same location to nest and breed – have been seen building a nest, most likely for next year.
Yazel said eagles fledge their young by about mid-May after nesting in late February.
Wildlife officials caution, however, that eagles like their privacy.
“They do like to be left alone, especially during nesting,” Yazel said.
Johnson said Greenfield’s eagle pair reside on posted, private property, so any attempts to get too close might involve trespassing. Further, active harassment of the birds could constitute violations of federal and state wildlife regulations.
“It’s best just to leave them be and observe from a distance,” he said.
Though eagles have been removed from the state’s endangered species list, the birds are still a species of “special concern,” requiring monitoring, according to the DNR.
The DNR’s Wildlife Diversity Program is responsible for overseeing the more than 750 threatened animal species in the state. It is funded primarily through citizens’ donations to Indiana’s Nongame Fund.
Donations to the Nongame Fund can be made on tax returns, by check or online by going to www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild or by downloading a donation form and mailing a check or money order to Indiana Nongame Fund, Division of Fish and Wildlife, 402 W. Washington St., Room W273, Indianapolis, IN 46204.