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Bald is Back

After more than a 100-year absence, the bald eagle flies back to Chicago

    Move over peregrine falcon. There’s a new bird in town vying for the title of Official Bird of Chicago. And not just any new bird, but the emblem of the United States.
    To be fair, the peregrine deserves its props. Like the bald
eagle, it, too, had disappeared entirely from Illinois, primarily
because of the effects of the pesticide DDT, which was finally banned in 1972. However, the peregrine has required a 24 year-and-counting human intervention effort to establish and monitor a dozen nesting pairs in and around the city.
    The pair of bald eagles that has built a nest on the city’s far
Southeast Side returned all on its own.
    Historical records indicate that bald eagles were never common in the Calumet area, the crescent of land that straddles the Illinois-Indiana state line along the southern rim of Lake Michigan. But once steel mills, oil refineries and related industries began to replace the area’s storied wetlands, dunes and other ecologically rich habitats, many species flew the coop—including bald eagles, last recorded there in 1897.
    Nearly a century later, many industries likewise abandoned the
area due to changing economies, leaving in their wake a legacy of pollution, landfills and brownfields, not to mention working-class communities hit hard by unemployment.
    However, scattered throughout the region remained an astonishing number of natural areas, including some of the most ecologically important wetlands in all of Illinois. Over the past few decades, a coalition of local grassroots activists, government agencies and nonprofit organizations have worked tirelessly to protect these natural areas from further harm and to reverse the effects of more than a century of intensive industrialization.
    Leave it to Walter Marcisz to have spotted the eagles. An avid
birder since the age of 10, he’s probably seen as many of the
200-plus resident and migrant bird species of the Calumet as any
other living biped. But catching his first glimpse of the eagles in
2004 wasn’t easy. Sensitive to human disturbance, the pair chose a nesting tree in an inaccessible patch of woods between the Little Calumet River and a sprawling industrial site.
    From a secret vantage point—secret to discourage activity that
might cause the eagles to abandon the nest—he’s watched the pair every year since add to its aerie, which could eventually measure 10 feet wide and weigh several tons.
    Marcisz hasn’t seen any baby eagles, or eaglets. However, Doug Stotz, conservation ecologist with the Field Museum’s Environment, Culture and Conservation program, notes that it took several years of nest building before the first bald eagles returning to Illinois back in the 1980s successfully fledged young.
    Indications are there’s enough food for the fish-dependent, top-of-the-food-chain eagles. In the early 1970s, Calumet rivers harbored six different fish species. Today, thanks to various clean-up efforts stemming from the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the rivers boast healthier populations of nearly 65 different piscine species.
    Stotz also points encouragingly to the return of ospreys. About
three-quarters as large as a bald eagle, which can measure three feet tall with a wingspan of more than six feet across, the osprey is another fish-dependent predator that had been extirpated from
Illinois. In 2002, a pair built a nest in the Calumet. After only two years, they successfully fledged their first young. Since then, they have fledged seven more.
    Asked what she thinks about bald eagles returning to the
Calumet, Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment, responds with a giddy “Yahoo!” First and foremost, she says their presence underscores the extraordinary recovery of a species that was headed toward extinction—bald eagles were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007. But they are also a sure sign that the Calumet is on the right road to recovery.
    “The Calumet is a place where industry, ecology and community are deeply interconnected,” Malec-McKenna says, “and where they can do more than survive, but rather thrive sustainably and in balance with one another.”
    Guided by its Calumet Land Use Plan, which calls for setting
aside 3,000 acres for cleaner industrial development and 4,800 acres for open space, the city has acquired and is in the process of rehabilitating several key natural area parcels, including Hegewisch Marsh, site of the future Ford Calumet Environmental Center. The Ford Motor Company has also built a supplier park for its automobile assembly plant, which, in addition to providing local jobs, is a model for using green technologies to filter stormwater runoff, promote energy efficiency and minimize pollution. Volunteers, organized by the Calumet Stewardship Initiative, are rolling up their sleeves and helping various government agencies and nonprofit organizations to rehabilitate natural areas for people to enjoy and critters to have a healthy home.
    And somewhere alongside a lazy river, from high atop a towering cottonwood tree, two bald eagles survey the recovering Calumet landscape and like what they see enough to add a few more sticks to their aerie every year.

Published: June 07, 2009
Issue: Summer 2009 Urban Living