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Bald eagles back from near extinction

Published: Friday, April 4, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, April 4, 2014 8:54 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided by Steve and Margaret Myers)
Bald eagles are seen nesting on the campus of Mooseheart Child City and School.

Longtime birders and eagle enthusiasts Margaret and Steven Myers of Blackberry Township go to great lengths to see a bald eagle. 

“There were days we would go to Carpentersville and stand out there for hours waiting for something to happen,” Margaret Myers said. “And other days, it was wonderful watching them fishing and putting on a show.”

Members of Kane County Audubon, they would park on side streets and walk to where Steve, with his big camera lens, can get good photos of the Mooseheart eagles, Myers said, as well as other birds. She cautioned that Mooseheart has certain restrictions about setting up on its property to look at the birds, and said that eagles get nervous around people. So the long lens guarantees good photos without upsetting the birds.

“When they were nesting on Randall Road, we got good baby eaglet photos,” Myers said. “When we went to Oswego, we saw eagles 10 at a time. I don’t care how many times you see them, they are just so majestic and wonderful and surreal. I’ll never get bored.”

The United States’ national symbol is back from near extinction now in record-setting numbers, 5,975 counted by volunteers from Jan. 1 to 15 this year, said Illinois Audubon Executive Director Tom Clay. 

Last year, volunteers counted 2,325. In statistics the Audubon provided dating back to 1992, the lowest population was 885 recorded in 1994. Volunteers do the counts on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, with additional routes on the Ohio and Wabash rivers, Crab Orchard Lake, Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area and Carlyle Lake.

Clay said the eagles’ resurgence is a result of the United States stopping the use of the pesticide DDT and other land protection and stewardship efforts in the last 40 years.

“They were not extinct, but their numbers in the lower 48 states were certainly in peril,” Clay said. “They were certainly to the point they were on the threatened and endangered list, and now they can be de-listed.”

Birders and conservationists are especially encouraged by the number of breeding pairs of bald eagles that are nesting, he said.

“There are at least five nesting pairs in Sangamon County,” Clay said, referring to the downstate county where the state’s capital of Springfield is located. “You don’t really think about the Grand Prairie of Sangamon County as bald eagle habitat, yet they are here.”

Jerry Hope of St. Charles, historian for the Kane County Audubon chapter, said when the pesticide DDT was used, it prevented adult female eagles from utilizing calcium in their diets in order to make egg shells. So when they laid eggs, the shells were too soft to protect the developing bird.

“When they laid eggs, it was a soft egg,” Hope said. “Their numbers were down due to the thinning of egg shells. All birds of prey numbers were down due to the thinning of egg shells. The weight of an adult bird would crush the eggs during incubation.”

Hope said the turning point for the birds was the 1972 prohibition of DDT and other chemical pesticides.

“The bald eagle population in the lower 48 states got down to 200 to 400 nesting pairs by the end of 1960 ... not counting Canada or Alaska, which did not use DDT,” Hope said. “The bald eagle was becoming dangerously low with the risk of extinction, and some areas had no eagles at all.”

The last official count in Illinois puts nesting pairs at 200, he said.

“That is a fantastic comeback. There were no known nesting pairs in Illinois prior to that because of the DDT problem,” Hope said. “My wife Jean and I have conducted several bald eagle trips. You can just take a stroll from Quarry Park in Batavia and follow the Fox River south. You do that four or five times, and you’re going to find an eagle.”

When the Myers can’t get out to look for eagles, they’ve got the Decorah, Iowa, eagle cam at www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles. The live camera is on day and night.

“The daddy brings her fish to eat, and they take turns sitting on the nest,” Myers said. “Then she will leave the nest, and he sits on the eggs. It’s really sweet how they switch.”

Myers said she sees the resurgence of bald eagles as not only a symbol of the nation, but a metaphor for it.

“The eagle kind of went endangered and did not do well but [they] are now making a comeback,” Myers said. “Like our country has done so many times with the depression and wars. And then we make a comeback. I think it’s a great thing.”

Know more

Facts about bald eagles:

• They can live up to 25 years in the wild and up to 50 years in captivity.

• They weigh 8 to 15 pounds, with a body length of 30 to 37 inches and wingspan up to 7.5 feet.

• Half their babies die in the first year.

• Eagles are not mature until they develop their distinctive white-feathered head at 4 and 5 years of age.

• Females are larger.

• The reference to bald comes from Old English balde, which means white.

Source: Jerry Hope, Kane County Audubon Historian.

On the Web:

To view a photo list of bald eagles in the Tri-Cities and Kaneland area, visit KCChronicle.com.

Information about eagles and other birds can be found at the following websites:

• Kane County Audubon - www.kanecountyaudubon.org.

• Decorah, Iowa eagle cam - www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles.

• Steve’s Light and Lens - http://lightandlens.net.

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