Where Eagles Soar
National Eagle Center offers up-close encounters, education
The National Eagle Center is a 15,000-square-foot interpretive center on the banks of the Mississippi River in Wabasha, Minn. (Mike Suchan photo)
WABASHA, Minn. – Anyone in the National Eagle Center knows when an eagle flies by – the residents let out a piercing shriek.
Four bald eagles and a golden eagle call the center home, and Eileen Hanson, director of public relations, said their eagle eyes don’t miss one of their own kind out the windows. And whether irked or friendly, the distinctive – and loud – calls ring out.
“We’re very fortunate we had a lot of community support to build this amazing facility right on the Mississippi River,” she said. “These big walls of glass give us a great view all year round of eagles of the Mississippi River.
Click the image to see photos of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn.
“And the way you’re going to know that, is our bald eagle ambassadors are going to know that. When they see an eagle out here, they’re going to tell you.”
The NEC began in 1989 as EagleWatch, Inc., with an observation deck in Wabasha because of the concentration of wintering eagles. The group took to a small storefront downtown in 2000 and welcomed its first two birds, Harriet and Angel.
Partnering with the city, the 15,000-square-foot interpretive center opened in 2007. Columbia, Was’aka and Donald, the golden eagle, came from far and wide to fill out the brood. Most of the birds suffered injuries in the wild, were rehabilitated and brought to the NEC.
“They are unable to survive in the wild because of their injuries,” Hanson said, “but they can be here and teach a lot of people about eagles, have that close encounter where people can really learn about them.”
The center’s mission is simple, Hanson said -- educate visitors on eagles and the Mississippi River watershed and foster environmental stewardship. Several of the birds have spread the message on shows like “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Colbert Report.”
“The habitat on which eagles depends, it connects a lot of different creatures,” Hanson said. “We want to educate about all the different, interconnected life of the Mississippi watershed.”
The region is an eagle mecca – great habitat and high density of birds. The Chippewa River feeds in from Wisconsin, there’s bottomland forest, forested bluffs and the Mississippi narrows here, keeping it flowing during winter. Hanson said they have 40 active nests within a stretch about 15 miles across.
“The unique thing that we have here, is you can meet the rescued eagles this close – face to face, and while you’re doing that, you can view wild eagles right over the Mississippi River,” she said.
The center holds special events starting in March, but everyday features – it’s only closed Tuesdays during the winter – include Live Eagle Programs at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. A handler presents facts about the animal they’re holding, then feeds it.
“You’re going to be able to learn up close live and in person,” Hanson said. “Touch a replicable of bald eagle eggs, see their talons up close, be able to touch and feel a number of different artifacts so you can really get a sense about how eagles work and what’s important about them.”
Visitors can enter an enclosed room – to muffle the sound of their calls -- where the eagles spend much of their day.
“They go outside every day. That’s part of their routine,” Hanson said. “They spend most of their time in here, like they do in the wild, perching and watching. More than 90 percent of their day in the wild, eagles spend perched and watching. They’re the ultimate hunter. You gotta be patient.”
One of the displays shows the immense size of eagle nests, which can be eight feet wide and 13 feet deep. Hanging from the ceiling are two eagles positioned with talons raised in attack mode for apparent battle, or is it a mating ritual?
“Depends on the season,” Hanson said. “The courtship displays can be in flight. They can lock talons, drop together and break apart before they hit the ground. In this area, we see that in the winter months, January, February.
“This time of year (July), they’re going to be defending their nesting territory. They’re going to use their talons; that’s their weapon. So it depends on what the circumstances are. It can look intense, but it very well could be courtship.”
In either case, eagles have not unlocked and crash landed. A recent occurrence at an airport in Duluth, Minn., received national headlines. Eagles have died from such encounters, but Alison Springer, who works at the NEC, said anyone who finds a dead eagle should leave it and alert wildlife officials.
“Only certain American Indians may possess any part of an eagle,” Springer said. “All eagle parts, every feather, every talon, all go to a National Repository.”
Several of the NEC’s eagle ambassadors have been injured by cars. Hanson said Columbia was struck by a vehicle but it saved her life. She had lead in her system and wouldn’t have gotten treatment otherwise.
Lead is extremely poisonous to eagles. Hanson said ingesting one lead pellet can kill an eagle in a matter of days. She said anglers and hunters can take steps to help prevent it, liking using lead-free tackle and covering up gutpiles.
“If an eagle doesn’t see it, they can’t eat it. So cover it up,” she said. “Raccoons can eat it, but their digestive system is different. That’s going to pass right through. The eagle’s digestive system, which is designed to digest whole animals, is the reason it’s so dangerous for them.”
Hanson said the other great story being told at the NEC is the recovery of the bald eagles, which dwindled to less than 400 pairs in the continental U.S. in the 1970s.
“Give them the habitat protections that they need and they’ve come back very strong,” she said. “They’re removed from the Endangered Species List, but they’re still definitely protected as our national symbol. But these birds came back from the brink of extinction, that’s an important message.”
The state of Minnesota now has 10,000 nesting pairs, and if eagles can aide in stewardship efforts for the environment as a whole, Hanson is all for it.
“They don’t exist in a vacuum. Eagles exist as part of an ecosystem and the health of that whole ecosystem is important,” she said. “We can’t have eagles unless we have healthy rivers and lakes, and mussels and fish and aquatic plants.
“Eagles might be the most attractive, most majestic or charismatic piece of that ecosystem, but it’s all just as important. If they can help protect everything else out there just by being charismatic, that’s great.”
The National Eagle Center is at 50 Pembroke Ave, Wabasha, MN 55981. (651) 565-4989; (877)-332-4537. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for 62 and older, $5 for 4-17, children 3 and under free.
Like eagles? Outdoor Channel, in partnership with the National Conservation Training Center, provides a live EagleCam that streams the activities of an eagle nest located 110 feet up, in a tree on the grounds of the US FWS National Conservation Training Center. Check out EagleCam, LIVE, at http://outdoorchannel.com/eaglecam.