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Bald eagles make comeback in the Windy City

The majestic bird that was once on the endangered species list is now nesting in Cook County. NBC's Kevin Tibbles reports.

By Kevin Tibbles
NBC News correspondent

CHICAGO -- Stan Wandersee has lived in the same house in St. Paul, Minn., for 50 years; and he’s never had any new neighbors quite as special as the ones who’ve moved in this spring. High up a tree, across the street, is a family of bald eagles.

“This is a gift of nature that has been bestowed upon us,” he said.

There was a time in America when the bald eagle was on the endangered species list and facing extinction. The deadly combination of pesticides (namely DDT), and urban sprawl, had all but driven these magnificent birds out of the lower 48 states. In the mid-60s just 450 nesting pairs remained.

“DDT was a really big problem for the bald eagle,” said Megan Ross of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. “Bald eagles in particular were not able to form appropriate shells, and so when they weren’t able to reproduce their numbers really plummeted.

Fortunately for the birds, and for us, times have changed. DDT was banned nationwide in 1972 and, in many cases, humans are starting to pay more attention to their natural surroundings. Today this majestic symbol of America is thriving; so much so, it is returning to areas it fled decades ago.

In the case of Chicago…make that 100 years!


According to wildlife officials in Cook County, where Chicago is situated, there has not been a bald eagle nest in more than a century. This year that changed. Less than a half-hour from the skyscrapers and bustle of the Windy City’s urban ‘Loop’ there sits an eagle's nest perched way up in the trees of a local forest preserve.

Chris Merenowicz, assistant director of resource management at the preserve, nimbly made his way through the underbrush; guided NBC News to the side of a hidden little lake that sits not far from a busy thoroughfare. He stopped and brought his binoculars to his eyes and whispered: “She’s in there looking at us.”

One hundred yards or so on the far bank is a massive wooden structure that is more tree fort than nest. The bright white head is visible for all to see.

“To see a pair carry off a nest like this within 30 minutes of downtown Chicago is unbelievable!” he said.

Dr. Megan Ross, Director of Animal Care, Lincoln Park Zoo Chicago and Stan Wandersee a bird enthusiast, from St Paul MN on the importance of the bald eagle population making a comeback in urban areas. 

And for Merenowicz, a pair of eagles settling down in this neck of the woods is a wonderful confirmation. “I think it’s the environment we’re growing up in right now. A whole new generation who are more aware of the environmental ethic. That’s what’s gonna get us over the hump that we were behind before.”

The eagle is of such interest that when a pair built a nest at the Alcoa facility in Davenport, Iowa the employees set up a web cam to monitor their progress. The eggs were laid, and hatched. The eaglets are thriving; and millions have tuned in to watch along the way.

Today there are more than 9,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states and, who knows, maybe you too could be as lucky as Stan Wandersee and find a couple taking residence across from your home.