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It's time to watch eagles soaring, building nests

Sharp talons and a hooked beak help an eagle survive. Eagles may lay multiple eggs, but start the incubation process after the first egg arrives. Many winter in the region, finding abundant food sources. (Steve Maanum / For the Enterprise)

Owls and eagles are among the first birds to be nesting in northern Minnesota. Some of our eagles stay here all winter and those that migrated are returning to claim their territories. When you see an eagle soaring overhead, it's worth taking time to watch and when you see two eagles, you might be lucky enough to witness an aerial dance.

While flying together, one eagle might flip upside down and lock talons with the other eagle. They will whirl and somersault toward earth, usually separating at the last moment. I read of two incidents when they didn't separate before hitting the ground. In one case, they landed in a bush in someone's yard and in the other case they landed on a Georgia golf course where they stayed locked together for several hours.

Eagles will usually add new branches to their nest each year. A typical nest can be as large as 13 feet deep and 8 feet wide and can weigh as much as a ton. Florida might have the record. It has a nest that is 20 feet deep, with a diameter of 9 ½ feet and it tips the scales at over two tons.

Eagles mate for life and both parents help with the nest building, incubating, and in raising the young. Where some birds, such as wood ducks, will lay an egg a day and not start incubating them until all the eggs are laid, an eagle will lay one and begin the incubation process right away.

A second egg may be laid a few days later, and on some occasions a third egg may even be laid. The incubation period is 35 days so when the first egg hatches, that eaglet will have the advantage of eating first. After the second egg hatches, the first-born may accept its sibling or it may kill it by pecking it to death or by pushing it from the nest.

I was fortunate enough to take a group of students along with two eagle researchers (Bob and Bart) in the Chippewa National Forest a number of years ago. As Bart climbed to the nest, which was 80 feet up in a white pine, we remained on the ground with Bob.

There were two eaglets in the nest and Bart lowered them to the ground in a backpack, one at a time. While each was being banded, the students got a close look at the sharp talons and hooked beak as Bob explained how those adaptations are important for eagle survival. We could have read those things in a textbook or an encyclopedia, but somehow, it just wouldn't have been the same.

Between now and mid-June nest disturbance is most critical and eagles may abandon their nest, so watch, but watch from a distance. You can also watch on your computers. Go to and click on the different eagle nest cameras. Minnesota Bound has one, but right now a great-horned owl is sitting on two eggs.

Steve Maanum can be reached at sdmaanum@