50 Years Ago, Bald Eagles Were Almost Extinct, but Now America’s Raptor Thrives in Iowa
In America's heartland, Iowa stands as a testament to the successful conservation of the majestic bald eagle population in the United States. In the 38 years that I have lived in the rural area of Jones and Dubuque County, I have witnessed many bald eagles, with an increase in sightings every year.
I was lucky enough to grow up on a hog farm in Monticello, Iowa and it sustained a bald eagle nest in a huge cottonwood in our field for much of my young life. Now it seems not a day goes by that I don't see a bald eagle on my trip to and from work.
What Caused the Bald Eagle to Almost Go Extinct?
Fifty years ago, the bald eagle was in danger of extinction throughout most of its natural habitat range due to habitat destruction and degradation, illegal hunting, and the contamination of its food source. That was largely a consequence of a product called DDT. The use of DDT negatively affects bald eagles' fertility and the strength of their eggshells and was the major factor in its population decline.
How Many Bald Eagles Reside in Iowa?
By the way, did you know that there are over 700 to 800 eagle nests in the state right now? True story. And a dedicated group of wildlife officials and passionate volunteers are working hand-in-hand to monitor and ensure the health of these iconic birds.
Iowa's Bald Eagle Conservation Efforts
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has pioneered the Bald Eagle Nest Monitor Program, leveraging the commitment of volunteers to keep a watchful eye on the nesting eagles. But what exactly are they watching for? Well, Stephanie Shepherd, the program director, has emphasized that a crucial metric for population health is a standard of at least one young-fledged per nest. Volunteers play a vital role in this mission and contribute to the official bald eagle nest counts in Iowa.
Interestingly enough, the area of the state that I was speaking of and live in currently in Cascade, Iowa is one of the more active nesting zones. Again, I can attest to that as oftentimes on drives towards Monticello on Highway 151 there could be a mass of 15-30 eagles in a field near a hog confinement. The scene is breathtaking and unfortunately difficult to capture on photo as the birds don't really fancy people that stop to photograph them.
Despite the challenges of last nesting season, which was impacted by the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak, Iowa's eagles are making a remarkable recovery. The 2023 Bald Eagle Midwinter Survey covered 1,663.5 miles of waterways, revealing a count of over 2,900 eagles, translating to nearly 2 eagles per river mile surveyed. The survey demonstrated the resilience of the bald eagle population in Iowa, even in the face of adversity.
The Bald Eagle Nest Monitoring, conducted by an army of volunteers from late winter to summer, showcased a recovery from the challenges of 2022. Of the 329 bald eagle nest sites monitored, 66% were successful in fledging eaglets, marking an average of 1.77 fledglings per nest – one of the highest rates in recent years. An extraordinary observation was made as a nest successfully fledged 4 young, a rare phenomenon that speaks to the dedication of the nest monitor.
2023 brought a return to normalcy in bald eagle population growth. The midwinter survey count was slightly below average, but the overall success rate, the number of active territories, and the average number of young produced per nest points towards a possible 720 young eagles being fledged. This confirms a resilient and healthy bald eagle population in Iowa.
This success story wouldn't be possible without the help of Iowa volunteers and the DNR staff, who tirelessly contribute to the monitoring and conservation of our local bald eagles. Their dedication ensures the continued recovery and well-being of these iconic birds, symbolizing the spirit of community and conservation in the Hawkeye State. As we celebrate Iowa's bald eagles soaring to new heights, let it serve as inspiration for conservation endeavors nationwide.
Photos: Northeast Iowa's Yellow River State Forest
Gallery Credit: Tom Ehlers
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