Wilderness Underfoot: The bald eagle

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112854151316971.jpg’, ”, ‘A frequent sight over the bluffs of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers – The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is an Illinois native. Counties along the rivers offer bald eagle watching programs in January when the birds are most plentiful here. To find out more about these programs, check the Web site of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity: www.enjoyillinois.com (use the SEARCH to look for “eagle watching").’);

Once nearly extinct in Illinois, the national bird is alive and well here

Back when the bald eagle was made the national bird by the Continental Congress, in 1782, there may have been as many as half a million of them in North America. Over time, however, hunting and pollution wiped out most of the birds, and by 1963 there were fewer than 500 breeding pairs surviving. Without action to protect them, it is likely they would have gone extinct.

Saving the bald eagle required tough state and federal laws, wildlife refuges, restoration programs and the banning of DDT and other chemical pollutants. The effort paid off, however, and we now have a growing population of bald eagles across the U.S., including Illinois.

Today, 20,000 of these birds are alive in the lower 48 states, and another 35,000 in Alaska. About 3,100 bald eagles winter over in Illinois, many of them migrating to the northern U.S. and Canada during the warmer season, while others stay here year round.

Bald eagles are primarily fish-eaters, so they tend to choose habitats near lakes, marshes, seacoasts and rivers. They nest in tall trees and high rocky bluffs. This makes the Mississippi River region ideal. The birds migrating here in winter are so plentiful that in January, counties along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers offer eagle-watching programs, attracting more than 2 million visitors each year.

The bald eagle is an amazing bird. If you ever get the chance to see one up close, the size of the creature will take your breath away. A fully-grown eagle can weigh as much as 15 pounds, with a wingspan of 8 feet.

Although the bald eagle prefers eating fish, it will consume other animals and occasionally carrion (dead meat). With sharp eyesight and the ability to dive on its prey at speeds reaching 200 miles per hour, this is a deadly hunter. The large, powerful talons of this bird clamp tight with 1,000 pounds of pressure. It can lift an animal up to half its weight, and if it can’t get a heavy fish out of the water, the eagle will actually use its wings to swim to shore, dragging the prey behind it!

Eagles mate for life. They create large nests, called eyries, in tall trees. The nests grow from year to year, starting around 5 feet in diameter and a couple feet deep, reaching twice that size and a few tons over time. They raise a single brood each year.

From the Oct. 5-11, 2005, issue

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