Credit: Arizona Game & Fish
I have always felt that I was incredibly fortunate to live my adult life in the Sonoran Desert with its spectacular landscapes, its vast varieties of unique plants and animals and its endless display of soul touching sunsets. And after almost 50 years of calling the magnificent desert home, to see for the first time bald eagles nesting in a saguaro is just the ultimate gift from our desert. The story of their discovery recently showed up in the Arizona Republic. We have copied that their story here... Enjoy this rare and special gift of the Sonoran Desert.
Erin Stone, Arizona Republic Published 4:46 p.m. MT April 16, 2020
A bald eagle nest in a saguaro cactus, the first time such a scene has ever been documented. (Photo: Arizona Game and Fish Department)
When Kenneth “Tuk” Jacobson got a call about a bald eagle nesting in a saguaro cactus, he had his doubts.
For one, as Arizona Game and Fish Department’s raptor management coordinator, he often received calls from the public about strange nesting situations. They were usually inaccurate.
Secondly, though biologists had long suspected bald eagles use saguaro cactuses as nesting sites, researchers had never documented such a sight in more than three decades of concerted research.
When Jacobson followed the tip and got on the ground at the site near a central Arizona reservoir, he saw the unprecedented scene with his own eyes. In the crook of the arms of a huge saguaro cactus, a bald eagle was perched on a sprawling nest made of sticks and other vegetation.
A few days later, he and his team did a helicopter survey to see the nest from above. They were further delighted to find that the pair of bald eagles had several eaglets in the nest — an indication of both the health of the nesting pair and bald eagle population growth as a whole.
“It was super exciting,” Jacobson said. “When people think of saguaro cactuses they think of Arizona. Then you have a bald eagle in the desert in a saguaro. I don’t know how much more Arizona you can get than that.”
Jacobson has watched the iconic birds return from near extinction throughout his nearly 20-year career as a wildlife biologist with Arizona Game and Fish.
“The bald eagle population was very small back in the 1970s — we had only 11 breeding areas, most of those on the lower Salt and Verde rivers," Jacobson said. “We’ve watched that population grow up through the entire river system to central Arizona. As this population continues to grow, we’re starting to see them in more and more areas using more and more unique substrates.”
When he started with the agency in 2002, Jacobson worked with John Koloszar, who ran the bald eagle program before him. Koloszar would often tell him to keep an eye on saguaros for signs of nesting eagles.
The imperiled raptors have made a remarkable comeback in Arizona, from fewer than a half-dozen nests in 1970 to 89 nests in 2019. For 18 years, per Koloszar’s advice, Jacobson has kept an eye out for bald eagles nesting in saguaros.
While there have been confirmed sightings of bald eagles nesting in the similarly columnar Cardon and Hecho cactuses in Mexico, biologists have been searching for a pair of bald eagles nesting in an Arizona saguaro for decades without success.
There had only been one documented case of bald eagles nesting in saguaros back in 1937, Jacobson said—and that historical record only noted empty nests with no eaglets or other indication of activity.
Though the population has rebounded, naturalists continue to protect the birds. That's why Jacobson isn't disclosing the saguaro's exact location, saying, "We want to share the news, but we don't want to attract a bunch of people and cause problems for the birds."
“When we started really looking at bald eagles in Arizona in the 1970s, we had it in the back of our minds as being possible, but as we surveyed the state for the last over 30 years, a saguaro nesting eagle was never documented or seen or identified,” Jacobson said. “I think finally seeing them nesting in a saguaro cactus is part of the story of their growth as a population as a whole. It’s a good sign.”