The morning was clear. The kind of clear you only get in January in Iowa when the temperature toes the zero mark. I awoke and rolled over to look out the east facing window, anticipating a beautiful dawn.
And there he was. Or she. I’m not sure. Eye level, not 10 feet away, standing stoic on the rail of the deck, pale yellow eyes fierce, taking in a depth of view I couldn’t begin to comprehend.
It’s hard to really appreciate just how big bald eagles are until you see one up close. The beak, the talons, the pure wildness in their eyes and a wingspan as wide as I am tall. Impressive creatures, no doubt. And here I was with a front row seat, a glimpse into the real life of America’s national bird. How lucky was I?
The year was 2009. At the time, I was living temporarily in a cabin on the river south of Burlington. The same cabin I had spent many summers at during my childhood. My grandpa’s cabin. There are places that are so special, that leave such an indelible mark on one’s psyche, that one’s life’s course is altered by them. That little patch of riverfront is one of those places for me.
I didn’t realize it at the time but have come to understand it well since: we are lucky to live in a place like this. Where viewing eagles is as easy as a trip downtown or down the road to the nearest riverfront access. Where literally hundreds of one of the nation’s largest birds of prey congregate for our viewing pleasure through the winter.
There are many people in many places that don’t have such opportunities. Where seeing an eagle is a rarity, worthy of a photo and a social post extolling what a lucky day such an occurrence imparts.
But on that cold morning in 2009, I took it for granted. Eagles, I had come to conclude, were not as majestic as I might have preferred.
At the time I drove a dark blue Chevy Blazer, leaving it parked under the tall, stately cottonwoods that adorned the cabin lot. The type of cottonwoods, it turns out, that eagles like to perch in while chowing down on the very thing that draws them in such large numbers to the river. Fish.
So while it was neat to wake up to an eagle right outside the window, it wasn’t so neat to have to scrape their frozen fish-laden excrement off my windshield in the mornings. The scaly white splatters contrasted well with the dark blue of my Blazer.
If this all had been last week, I’d say there’s a metaphor to be had here. Kind of sums up the past year, right? But this was 2009 and I was too concerned with figuring out how to wash eagle splat off my car in single-digit temps to really appreciate that the species had been removed from the federal threatened and endangered list not two years before.
But I appreciate it now. And maybe you can, too. The eagle is a charismatic example of conservation policy doing what it was intended to.
At the time the U.S. became a country, there were likely upwards of half-a-million bald eagles calling this continent home. By the 1950s, there were a total of only 412 nesting pairs of eagles in the lower 48 states.
The species had been all but wiped out due mostly to human causes, the most notable of which was the use of the pesticide DDT. The chemical itself wasn’t directly harmful to the birds. Instead, it affected their ability to metabolize calcium and resulted in thin eggshells, ultimately reducing their reproductive capabilities. It’s wildlife management 101 — reduce a species reproductive rate and over time the population shrinks.
Looking back, time has a way of constricting. Eagle numbers were dangerously low, we took action, numbers rebounded. In June 2007, the eagle was officially delisted from the federal threatened and endangered species list in the contiguous United States. But getting there took decades.
Eagles first were protected via the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, then specifically protected from commercial harvest by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940. It took until 1967 for it to make the endangered species list and until 1972 to ban the use of DDT.
I suspect for those conservationists who were fighting for policy on behalf of eagles and other birds (eagles weren’t the only birds affected by DDT, they were just the most recognizable — every cause needs a figurehead I suppose), the rate of policy change felt glacial.
I can relate. I often despair at the glacial pace of government. But this story, and the many others like it in the history of conservation in this country, give me hope in the long run.
Yes, it took time, but the nation’s bird recovered. By 1992, an estimated 115,000 eagles hunted U.S. waterways. Today, annual counts in this area this time of year regularly log numbers well into the hundreds. Across the Midwest at least, eagles “may be reaching population capacity, which is pretty cool” according to DNR researchers.
Pretty cool, indeed. For us river-town-dwellers, eagles are a fairly common sight year-round, especially so in the winter. And for that, we should be grateful.
Even if it does require a few extra car washes.
This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: How conservation policies helped bald eagle populations soar