Bald eagles wheel across city lakes, fly above urban freeways and perch near the top of tall trees in our parks, nature areas and riversides. These majestic birds, with wings that stretch up to 7 feet from tip to tip, can make us stop in our tracks and watch them soar.

To most of us, these massive raptors are a symbol of the wilderness. And, indeed, most of Minnesota's 1,300 breeding pairs of eagles raise their young in northern areas. But while they'll never become as ubiquitous as crows, eagles in the Twin Cities area are seen on a regular basis.

Wildlife researchers and park staffers estimate that there are as many as 90 bald eagle nests in the seven-county metro area. That makes ours one of the nation's few urban areas where the national bird is seen often.

It hasn't always been this way.

In the early 1960s, bald eagle numbers dwindled to just over 400 nesting pairs in the contiguous United States. Decades of illegal hunting, habitat loss and exposure to the pesticide DDT had taken their toll. Working together, a whole host of government agencies, American Indian tribes, conservation organizations, private landowners and volunteers were able to bring eagles back.

Now, after four decades of federal protection, there are eagle nests in every state. It's been estimated that there are 9,800 pairs nationwide today. With its 1,300 nesting pairs, Minnesota tops the list. Florida and Wisconsin are just behind it.

Visible, vulnerable nests

In an urban area, eagles tend to nest near lakes or rivers in trees tall enough to offer a good view of the surrounding area. Their nests aren't hard to spot, because eagles not only build high, they build big.

New nests measure about 4 feet across and at least a foot tall, but a nest typically grows when the adult birds add more sticks each year. Older nests can be significantly bigger, making them even easier to see from a distance. (Eagles used a nest in Ohio for 34 years. When the tree it was in blew down, the nest measured 9 feet across and 20 feet deep.)

Not all of the 90 nests in the Twin Cities are actively used. Some bald eagles maintain multiple nests, switching between them from one year to the next. But it's likely that you'll be able to catch a glimpse of eagles nesting at several locations.

This year, St. Paul's Lilydale-Harriet Island Regional Park has an active eagle nest. Eagles are nesting along the Minnesota River in Bloomington and some Hennepin County parks also host nests.

One well known, often-watched nest is along Hwy. 36 in Maplewood. Thousands of cars whiz by it every day. And although the eagles nesting there seem inured to the hustle and bustle of human activity, they -- and all the other eagles across the metro area -- need a little consideration.

"Bald eagles may be nesting near a busy road and have become used to the daily traffic," said Margaret Rheude, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "but that doesn't mean they'd be tolerant of someone stopping a car and getting out to approach their nest tree."

If you get too close to an eagle's nest, the bird can "flush," leaving its babies vulnerable to predators and the elements. That's why eagle experts ask that observers stay at least a quarter-mile away from nests during prime breeding season, which runs from late February to mid-April in our area.

It's wise to exercise caution even around nests that appear unoccupied. Eagles usually hunker down and may be visible only when shifting position or being relieved of nest duty by a mate. (If you go eagle spotting, bring a pair of binoculars.)

Eagles are bounding back, but there's still much work to be done, especially in terms of protecting habitat and preventing eagles (and other birds) from ingesting lead ammunition, which can be deadly.

So as much as we all love bald eagles, we have to be careful to give them elbow room. If you watch nests, be sure to do so from a distance. That way, the metro area will continue to provide the awe-inspiring sight of eagles soaring overhead.

Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at

See eagle nests

• The nest at Keller Regional Park can be viewed from Keller Island Picnic Area. Take Hwy. 36 east and exit onto Hwy. 61 south. Take the first right, into the picnic area's parking lot. From there, you should be able to see the nest across the lake.

• The Round Lake eagle nest can be seen from the gas station at the corner of Hwy. 96 and Round Lake Road, just east of Interstate 35W in Arden Hills.

• There are van tours to view eagle nests in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington at 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays in March, April and May. Call Refuge Friends Inc. at 952-858-0737 to reserve a spot.