You can't fly with the eagles in Iowa, but you can watch them

February 06, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

This small Mississippi River town, known to locals for its corn syrup plant and walleye fishing, might seem an unlikely roost for tourists.

But with each passing winter, as hundreds of bald eagles fly here to fish the frigid waters and sun themselves in gnarled oaks, Keokuk, Iowa, is gaining a reputation as the bald eagle capital of the Midwest.

Keokuk has been an eagle hangout since Lock and Dam No. 19 went up in 1957. But when the 1960s and '70s saw the birds come close to extinction, it became one of the few places Midwesterners could see eagles in the wild.

Now it is a place where the birds show up with each succeeding winter in record numbers, bringing with them ever-growing flocks of tourists.

"One of the guys at work told me about this," said Richard Motyka, a plumbing supplier who made the six-hour trip from Dyer, Ind., for an eagle-watching weekend. "Next year, I'll take my son with me. I can't believe you can get so close to them."

"The only time I've seen 'em before is at the zoo," Mr. Motyka said. "They don't fly at the zoo."

Some 2,500 bald eagles spend winters along the Upper Mississippi Valley between St. Paul and St. Louis. But experts say that of all the destinations, Keokuk is perhaps the best place to spy an eagle.

There are apparently more bald eagles this time of year in Keokuk than perhaps anywhere else in North America, except for the Chilkat River in Alaska.

Between December and March, about 400 eagles leave their remote nesting grounds in Minnesota and Wisconsin for Keokuk, looking for a place to eat. While the weather may be just as cold as in the north, Keokuk's power plant keeps the river waters churning, giving the birds a perfect place to forage for food.

In 1860, some 50,000 pairs of breeding bald eagles roamed the continental United States.

A century later, there were fewer than 400 pairs. They fell to near extinction mostly from DDT, a pesticide widely used until 1962.

"DDT caused their eggshells to be very thin," explained Marianne Hahn, president of the Thorn Creek Audubon Society in Illinois. "If a female stepped on an egg, she would squish it."

Government officials banned DDT in 1972. But the chemical still threatens the survival of the birds.

According to a study released this month by Michigan State University researchers, eagles living along the nation's coastal regions still have toxic DDT blood levels, leaving them unable to reproduce.

Ms. Hahn, who came from Homewood, Ill., to indulge in some eagle watching, said the Keokuk birds probably resumed having offspring about 20 years ago. As she lined up her field scope for a closer look, she seemed encouraged by the sight of brown bald eagles, or immatures.

An eagle gets its white tail and crown of feathers usually by the fourth or fifth year of life, a sign of sexual maturity. Come February, a traditional courtship time for eagles, an alert watcher can catch the young birds in the throes of feathered bliss.

"They join talons together, then they start spiraling to the ground with their wings spread out," said Mike Schell, an officer with the Illinois Department of Conservation. "They get about 30 yards above the water, they let go of their talons and just chatter to each other."

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