Eagle Numbers Soar in an Iowa Winter

Eagle Numbers Soar in an Iowa Winter

Mar 10, 2017

You might see a few stragglers through March; eagles moving through Iowa as they head north. They’re more often immature birds; still with the mottled dark brown and white feathers. Until they are mature, about five years old– showing off the snow white head and tail feathers, with dark body plumage– they don’t have a mate or nesting responsibility. So they stick around a little longer, near reservoirs and river corridors throughout Iowa.

But the show was fabulous—again—in mid to late winter. In January, wildlife biologists and volunteers count the eagles across the U.S over a couple week span. Not a pinpoint total of our eagle population, but a ‘snapshot’ of the numbers we see year to year. In a cold winter, eagles are concentrated near open water. In milder conditions, they can spread across the landscape. Bare farm fields and smaller streams offer up food to keep them around.

Keep in mind, our nation’s symbol was nearly extirpated from the lower 48 states by the mid-1900s, due to Organocholorine pesticides—like DDT– and loss of their habitat. Two observations, however, from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources underscore the bald eagle recovery;

1…“In the 1970s, Iowa’s winter eagle count was in the dozens. Now, in a normal winter, you see that many below about any Mississippi River lock and dam.”

2…“With record cold in 2013 (eagles concentrated, easier to see), we had almost 5000 winter eagles”, For the most part, eagles are fish eaters. That’s why you are more likely to see them above a lock and dam on the Mississippi River; or—increasingly—along the Des Moines River. Fish stunned by the rollers on the dam, or which died through the winter and are offered up as the ice melts—make up the major share of their diet.

Some sit on the ice for their meal. Some take it to a nearby tree to eat. Then, it’s back to Nature’s pantry for more.

For decades, bald eagles were an endangered species across the U.S.– -facing the prospect of extinction. With protection through the Endangered Species Act, as well as elimination of those killer pesticides, they have recovered. They have been removed from the endangered list—though they still are protected by other federal laws.

If you missed the Outdoor Eagle Review this winter– -come back next year. It promises to grow each year. Besides, there are still dozens nesting across Iowa. The total nests should be over 100 statewide by now. Spend much time around the water and you’ll stand a good chance of spotting one as it drops for a fish or loafs in a cottonwood tree for a couple hours.