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Iowa is Winter Home to Thousands of Bald Eagles

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CEDAR RAPIDS, IA - Bald eagles get their day—or two—in the sun this weekend. Wildlife workers and volunteers will have their eyes on the skies, as they tally and report sightings of bald eagles, across the country.

The Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey has been held for over 30 years, coordinated by the Army Corps of Engineers. For flexibility, surveyors have January 2-16 to finish their non-overlapping routes, though the target dates are January 11 and 12.

“We counted over 3,000 eagles last year. We are coming up with some interesting patterns here in Iowa,” notes Stephanie Shepherd, wildlife diversity biologist with the Iowa DNR. “Normally, our highest concentration of eagles would be along the Mississippi River; concentrated below the dams where there is open water. But we actually had higher counts in 2010 and 2011 on the Des Moines River, and then back to the Mississippi in 2012, but numbers were a little suppressed. We have the numbers. They are just spread out a little more around the state.”

Shepherd says those trends point out the changing dynamics of Iowa’s winter eagle populations; which have streamed upwards over the last few decades. “Iowa is a terrific place for winter eagle watching. We generally have the best concentrations along our bigger waterways, in areas where water is open.”

Besides the scientific data provided by the midwinter survey, eagle viewing is embraced by outdoor Iowans each winter. Communities up and down the Mississippi River, and several on larger inland streams, host Bald Eagle Days with indoor displays…and outdoor viewing spotting scope positions for watching our nation’s symbol.

“The bald eagle is really a fascinating bird,” underscores Shepherd. “It gives us, a kind of hope, with its population recovery. It is a success story. It shows up now in places we never expected eagles to be. They are also a lot of fun to watch and listen to, with their social behavior in the winter.”

Watching from the Inside

Not every eagle wintering in Iowa will be included in the midwinter survey. However, one watching ‘from the inside’ is still alive.

His fate was in doubt when Robert Strickell noticed him in the corn stubble near Hwy. 63 in Howard County, three days before Christmas.

“I had been heading out to cut wood, when I saw him hopping in the field. He couldn’t fly,” recalls Strickell, of Elma. “I watched him, and made a few calls, trying to get someone to come out.”

With no one able to get to the bird before dark, Strickell was able to get his heavy coat over the bird and coax it into a plastic pet carrier. It spent the night in the neighbor’s basement, before a ride was arranged.

The next stop was the Macbride Raptor Project clinic, on the Cedar Rapids campus of Kirkwood Community College. Dozens of raptors are treated there each year.

Project director Jodeane Cancilla, technician Jenny Zieser and volunteer Michael Giller went to work on the injured bird.

“Jenny is feeling for a fracture. We’ll x-ray tomorrow, but she’s going over him; checking the humerus, radial, ulna and metacarpels,” explained Cancilla. A blood sample went into a lead exposure detector. It came back ‘suspicious,’ but not overly dangerous.

In the new year, prospects are looking up. Test showed no broken bones, or physical traces of lead in his system. With contusions over his eyes, Cancilla thought perhaps the bird had been forced to the ground by a passing car, and had trouble seeing when found. His next stop was the clinic’s flight cages near Solon. He is being hand fed as he works to regain strength and negotiate around the facility’s perches, poles and trees. This one might make it.

That single eagle’s recovery parallels—on a small scale—the comeback of our nation’s symbol. Everybody remembers how DDT poisoning sent eagle numbers plummeting in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Banning the pesticide and setting aside areas of habitat did the job. From virtually no eagles seen in Iowa in the1970s…bald eagles accent the skies and open waters across Iowa, in the 2000s.

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