Two years ago, a female eagle was found shot dead in Normal. Her mate soon died -- killed apparently by another bird. Then their three orphaned eagles died. Bird watchers feared it would be the end of eagles in McLean County. But there is good news.
A new pair of the white-topped, hooked-beak creatures has taken up residence in the nest the dead eagles left behind and they are raising three eaglets there.
The nest sits high atop a cottonwood tree along the Mackinaw River. The tree borders the property of Master Naturalist and nature photographer Mary Jo Adams, who has been chronicling the eagle family's life.
Adams is as close as one can possibly get to being an eagle whisperer. She has photographed the daily routine of successive generations of eagles, from feeding time to the first halting attempts of the eaglets to fly.
They allow her to get closer than most humans to the tree where they nest without kicking up a fuss. She is so familiar with the birds that she can identify them by small characteristics on their bodies. She helped state Natural Resources officials identify the eagle that was shot two years ago through the bird's slightly deformed talon.
Like a proud parent, Adams has given all of her eagle neighbors names. The current female resident she calls "Bea," short for beautiful. She believes Bea is a daughter of the first pair of eagles who roosted in the nest, and is one an earlier set of eaglets that hatched there.
"I just feel in my heart it is that very first eagle that was hatched that came back, found the nest empty and decided to move in," Adams said.
"She would always return every year and we would see her stay for a while. She was familiar with the area. To me, for a random pair of eagles just to fly in and realize there was an empty nest there would be pretty much of a coincidence."
Revered by Illinois' early Native American inhabitants, eagles are part of the state;s heritage. The pesticide DDT took a toll on them. The American eagle, symbol of the U.S., was on the endangered species list for a while, but has since rebounded. They are still considered a protected species and it is a federal crime to wound or kill one.
Adams has named the three newest eaglets, Ivan Isaiah and Irene. "They are majestic, beautiful birds. They belong here," she said.
The parents remain in the same nest, but the eaglets will eventually fly off to other parts. Eagles have been spotted nesting near Lakes Bloomington and Evergreen and in Heyworth as well.
Eagles are curious creatures. They mate for life, are extraordinarily caring parents, who share in the child-rearing. But they will also steal other bird's food right out from under them. Benjamin Franklin objected to the eagle becoming a symbol of the nation, citing their "bad moral character." Franklin preferred the turkey.
Adams and her husband Sandy, a White Oak Township Volunteer Firefighter, are accommodating to nature lovers who stop by asking to take a peak at the nest through binoculars. They recently gave a tour to a the Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalists.
It's not everyone, Adams says, who can say they have eagles in their backyard. "I just love to watch this whole process of the nesting and the young ones and once I see them fly, it's truly a magical experience. I feel so blessed to have them here."