Jan 14, 2014
Say what you will about Iowa’s cold winter weather…it’s good for eagle watching.
Not for eagles themselves. In the bitter cold we saw—and felt—as January kicked off,
they need to conserve activity and eat more just to survive. However, a lock-down layer
of ice and snow concentrates them near open water…and often near people. Low head
dams across eastern Iowa and along the Mississippi River lock and dam system draw
eagles. So, we watch them.
In the past couple decades, they have become a tourism draw. “Iowa has really ‘grown’
this culture of bald eagle watching”, remarks Stephanie Shepherd, wildlife diversity
biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. “Up and down the Mississippi
River; inland too, at the Coralville and Saylorville Reservoirs. You have opportunities to
get together with a lot of other people. Wildlife professionals outside are at the scopes;
for up close looks at eagles; in a fun, ‘festival’ type atmosphere.” Information is at
It wasn’t always that way.
You’ve heard it by now. Habitat destruction and paper thin, pesticide-plagued egg shells
nearly caused the extirpation of bald eagles in the Lower 48, after World War II. Federal
protection for the eagles and, well, an environmental conscience among humans which
developed in the 1960s and ‘70s boosted their comeback. Landowner cooperation sure
Now? Bald eagles in Iowa are ranked—not by the dozens—but by the thousands each
winter. “Iowa is one of the best places in the country to view winter eagles. Eagles are
only going to move as far south as they need, to find food. Most concentrate on open
areas below dams”, says Shepherd. “Fish are stunned coming through those dams. They
are much less territorial in the winter; oh, an occasional conflict over a meal, but they get
along pretty well.”
How well? We will know by spring, after the big North American Midwinter Bald Eagle
Survey. Wildlife biologists and conservation volunteers fanned out across Iowa…and the
continent…in mid-January for a bald eagle ‘snapshot’. “It is one of the primary ways we
keep track of them”, emphasizes Shepherd.
The year to year count is not that important; but the trend over the years tells biologists
what they need to know. “The winter numbers have gone from the low hundreds to 3000,
4000 in the last several years”, proclaims Shepherd. “For the last couple years, the Des
Moines River tallied more eagles than the Mississippi River. This year, with the cold, we
think there will be more there.
Either way, the nation’s symbol is on solid ground. It has been removed from the federal
and state endangered species lists. Not to worry, though. It still ranks as a ‘protected
species’. Want to harm one? Your checkbook better be able to hold up to the possible
$100,000 fine. It is still our country’s symbol.
After 50 years of recovery, nobody wants to mess with success.