MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) — Cerro Gordo County Conservation Director Fred Heinz calls the return of bald eagles to Iowa “a fairy tale ending” to an almost tragic story.
“I can remember seeing my first eagle along the Mississippi River back in the mid-1970s,” said Heinz. It was one of those “wow” moments.
“Today you can see one every day of the week if you really go out and look,” he marveled.
The return of eagles to Iowa is truly a success story.
No nesting pairs were known to exist in Iowa between 1905 and 1977, when one nest was spotted.
By last year more than 200 nesting territories were found in Iowa. Of those, about 26 are in North Iowa, according to 2011 figures. They are probably conservative figures, officials say.
Eagle populations were decimated in the 20th century for several reasons: use of the pesticide DDT, the elimination of forests — eagles need large trees in which to nest — and killing at the hands of farmers who wanted to keep the birds from killing young animals.
Bald eagle numbers were reduced to near-extinction.
Rachel Carson’s publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962, which explored use of DDT, helped to raise awareness of the pesticide that resulted in weakened eagle eggs. Combined with other impacts, the bald eagle population almost disappeared.
By 1963 when the Endangered Species Act was created, there were only an estimated 417 pairs of nesting eagles throughout the entire lower 48 states.
With safeguards designed to increase the eagle population, more than 9,000 pairs were documented in 2006, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR has been closely monitoring the nests, according to Stephanie Shepherd, DNR wildlife diversity biologist.
Two different programs are used. The first is a more casual monitoring by citizen volunteers who report on nest locations and activity. The second is a more systematic monitoring by volunteers who visit the sites three times a year to collect more specific data. An aerial survey was piloted in 2011 as well.
Mary Jo Burkgren, naturalist for Mitchell County, said the Cedar River Valley is flush with the majestic raptors.
“The fish supply here is so good. They like the carp and catfish that the otters bring up on shore — the eagles don’t have to work so hard,” Burkgren said with a laugh.
She said the Nature Center will welcome two eagles in residence in May or June. Both were wounded and their injuries prevent them from flying for any distance, she said.
The eagles come to Mitchell County under the auspices of Save Our Avian Resources (SOAR), a group from Dedham, Iowa, that is committed to avian advocacy and treatment of injured raptors.
The Mitchell County raptors, said Burkgren, “will help people understand them, learn how to identify them. We hear of people killing eagles because they thought they were another kind of bird.
“Most importantly, they will help people understand how important they are to our ecosystem.”
The nature center is already home to a kestrel named Spar. Once the bald eagles arrive, Mitchell County will be the only North Iowa location for seeing a bald eagle “up close and personal.”
And that is a great alternative to trying to find nests, Burkgren said. Some people — either intentionally or unintentionally — disturb the structures.
Conservation and DNR officials are careful about not releasing exact locations of nests for that reason.
Since eagles are nesting and have fledglings right now, the birds are at their most fragile. Any disruption to the nest can cause damage to eggs or cause harm to the young eagles, Burkgren said.
A much better alternative is viewing resident eagles.
In addition to Mitchell County’s Nature Center and the eagle webcam of the famous Decorah eagles, resident raptors can be viewed at the National Eagle Center at Wabasha, Minn., as well as Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo at Byron, Minn., west of Rochester.