The bald eagle has an important and honored place in both Native American and Oklahoma history. Long before the bald eagle became the national symbol of the U.S., or before the Oklahoma state flag incorporated seven eagle feathers on its Osage buffalo skin shield, the bird of prey was a revered and sacred symbol among the Indigenous tribes that called the U.S. place for centuries before statehood.
Representing truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power and freedom among Native peoples, bald eagles are believed to have a special connection to God. For the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, bald eagles carry prayers to the Creator and therefore are the only living thing that has seen the Creator’s face.
In 1782, when the bird was formally adopted as the national emblem, the bird’s population in the U.S. was approximately 20,000 nesting pairs. As the country was settled during the 1800 and 1900s, the encroachment on natural habitats caused bald eagle populations to dwindle to near extinction levels. By the early 1980, their numbers had decreased to about 2,400 nesting pairs in the continental U.S.
In Oklahoma, tribal organizations, as well as nonprofits like the Sutton Avian Sanctuary, have worked to increase the bird’s population. Between 1984 and 1992, the Sutton Center raised and released 275 southern bald eagles in the southeastern United States. The birds’ eggs were removed from nests in Florida and transported to their captive rearing facility in Bartlesville.
The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma developed an eagle rehabilitation program and eagle aviary named the Grey Snow Eagle House in 2006, which was built to protect both bald and golden Eagles. The facility is located in Perkins.
The Tulsa Audubon Society has been actively protecting bald eagle populations for over 40 years. A non-public eagle sanctuary is owned by the Society for the protection of wintering bald eagles at Lake Keystone, and the group also hosts ‘eagle days’ to provide opportunities for the public to observe the birds in their natural habitats.
Oklahoma is home to two populations of bald eagles. Southern bald eagles are readily visible all year long along most of the rivers in eastern Oklahoma. Their nests are large and easy to see, but it’s important not to publicize their locations to protect them from disturbance.
Drawn by the abundant lakes in Oklahoma, north bald eagles spend winters here. They will often nest below the dams, where they can hunt for fish. They are most prevalent during the months of March through December and have been known to mix with the native population of southern bald eagles.
Where to See Them
Oklahoma is considered a top ten state for viewing bald eagles. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation maintains a list of eagle watching groups and events at their website, wildlifedepartment.com.
The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma’s Grey Snow Eagle House offers guided tours by appointment only on Saturdays and Sundays, for groups no larger than ten. Large groups can book on Thursdays. Tours can be booked at eagles.iowanation.org or by calling the office at 405-334-7471.
The best time to plan your visit is spring through mid-summer, and fall through early winter. Tours are not offered when temperatures are above 95º or below 40º. Tours are free, but donations are encouraged.
The George M. Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville maintains a popular ‘Eagle Cam’ on a bald eagle nest at the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge. This nest can be viewed live 24 hrs a day at suttoncenter.org/live-bald-eagle-nest-camera.