Eagle watch: Mississippi River, Raptor Center

eagle-centerUp to 2,500 bald eagles winter near the Mississippi River’s locks and dams because open water makes it easier to fish for dinner. That’s why we consider this the time of year to seek out the once-endangered raptor.

The population estimate comes from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and most bald eagles head north to nest as weather warms toward the beginning of spring.

Are 2,500 bald eagles a lot? That depends. Up to 500,000 lived in the U.S. during the 1700s. Fewer than 450 nesting pairs existed 50 years ago in the lower 48 states. Now there are at least 4,000.

At the University of Minnesota, an intense interest in birds of prey has no season. It’s been that way 40 years, long before the snowballing of bald eagle festivals, field trips and lectures during cold weather.

The Raptor Center in the College of Veterinary Medicine was the first place in the world to offer a residency in raptor medicine and surgery. Parts of the building are open for self-guided and narrated tours every day except Monday.

Specimens in the “feet drawer” compare the size, look and feel of an osprey, barred owl and more. In the “feather freezer” – arranged by species, age and left vs. right wing – are potential implants for patients missing full plumage.

Children can dress up like a veterinarian or rescued raptor, examine X-rays of the big birds and see rehabilitated eagles, hawks and kestrels that cannot survive in the wild because of disabling injuries.

Permanent residents include bald eagles Othello, who met President Clinton at the U.S. Capitol, and Pi, who attends Minnesota Twin home openers.

Under construction on the campus is a bigger public education center, which includes renovated outdoor housing for these and other non-releasable birds. It should be finished in spring.

About 750 raptors, including 114 bald eagles, were clinic patients in 2014. At least 10 times as many smaller birds are referred to Harriet Alexander Nature Center, five miles away.

“Being in a migration corridor, we see a lot of out-of-towners,” says Amber Burnette, program associate at The Raptor Center. Birds are brought from the Dakotas, Wisconsin and beyond because of broken wings, gunshot wounds, fledgling abandonment and other circumstances.

More than 300 veterinarians from 26 countries have studied birds of prey at the St. Paul facility since it opened in 1974.

Visitors do not get clinic access when touring The Raptor Center because, as program educator Gail Buhl explains it, “If you were in the hospital and sick, you wouldn’t want all kinds of people looking at you.”

The Raptor Center, 1920 Fitch Ave., St. Paul, Minn., is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. on weekends. A one-hour “Raptors of Minnesota” program starts at 1 p.m. on weekends. raptor.cvm.umn.edu, 612-624-4745

Eighty-five miles southeast of this facility is the National Eagle Center, 50 Pembroke Ave., Wabasha, Minn. Artwork, film clips, taped interviews with conservationists and five feathered residents teach the habits, history and legends associated with eagles. The interpretive center and observation area, open since 2007, face the Mississippi riverfront.

During March weekends, Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR) events add education about many species of winged creatures. Topics are Birds Around the World (with a condor, crane and cockatoo), March 7-8; Earthquest (with unusual birds of prey), March 14-15; Wings to SOAR (with hawks, vultures, owls), March 21-22; and Wings of Wonder (with parrots, penguins, kookaburra), March 28-29.

This is in addition to programs with the resident eagles at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily. Admission is $8 (less for children and senior citizens). Educators lead occasional field trips, too. nationaleaglecenter.org, 651-565-4989

Closer to home for most of us is the Northwoods Wildlife Center, 8683 Blumenstein Rd., Minocqua, where 10 types of raptors, each non-releasable, are ambassadors of education. The rehab and environmental center in 2014 treated 64 species, including eight types of raptors.

Free, guided tours happen on weekdays during winter. Visiting hours and programs expand in summer. Donations are appreciated. northwoodswildlifecenter.org, 715-356-7400

Bald Eagle Watching Day in Ferryville (population 176), between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 7 at the Village Hall and Fire Department. That means opportunities to learn about the bird from reps of Ho Chunk Nation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. Children can help construct an eagle-sized nest (they average five feet in diameter). visitferryville.com, 608-734-9077

Want a longer road trip? Follow the Mississippi to St. Louis, then head a bit west. On 305 acres of forest is the World Bird Sanctuary, a nonprofit devoted to avian conservation and rehab. A nature center is home to birds, mammals and reptiles. Rehab hospital staffers specialize in raptors and parrots.

World Eagle Day on March 29 means free wildlife hospital tours, talks by naturalists and shows that involve eagles that live on the premises. worldbirdsanctuary.org, 636-225-4390