Celebrating the return of the bald eagle
In the Iowa winter, because the poet Robert Hass wrote, “a farmer’s dreams are narrow,” and autumn can inspire me with a type of dread as I work within the garden so that it will soon be buried under snow. But this coming winter, because the river that runs past my window becomes a sluggish ice jam, something miraculous will happen: The bald eagles will return.
To anyone conversant in the birds primarily through American patriotic kitsch, the sight would possibly not seem that moving. But after the bald eagle became our national symbol in 1782, Americans drove it to the threshold of extinction. In 1973, two years before I USED TO BE born, nature writer George Laycock chronicled the “impending disappearance of the bald eagle” in a book that details the manifold challenges facing the birds, from pollution to hunting to development. His book, Autumn of the Eagle, advocates change but reads more like a lament for a species that may be already gone, complete with data charts showing the extirpation of the birds from the lower 48 states. From the 1930s to the 1960s, from west Texas to California, hunters developed the weird sport of aerial eagle hunting, killing thousands of eagles a year by blasting them with shotguns from the open windows of small planes.
The practice emerged as a response to sheep ranchers’ mistaken belief that the birds, which grow to almost four feet long and feature a seven-foot wingspan, could prey on young lambs, a myth similar to the persistent rumor that the birds snatch babies. Nevertheless it developed right into a uniquely American high-octane sport. One legendary hunter, John Casparis, bragged that he could kill 1,000 eagles a year by approaching them from behind, letting go of the controls and firing his sawed-off shotgun prior to the craft stalled right into a dive.
DDT was a miles bigger threat. American farmers dumped thousands of hundreds the insecticide on their crops every year within the 1950s and ’60s, before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring established the link to waning bird populations and helped launch the yank environmental movement. As DDT made its way during the food chain in ever-more-concentrated doses, it caused eagle shells to become thin and eagle eggs sterile. Against fierce industrial opposition, the united states.. banned DDT in 1972 and the birds were protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. But as a child, I never saw an eagle that wasn’t in a zoo or on a dollar bill.
In Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, a personality who has found a lost infant meets another who has just witnessed a death. “You have met with things dying,” he says, “and I with things newborn,” and the instant shifts the play from tragedy to comedy. The eagle’s return marks the same narrative shift, a victory for individuals who spent their Januaries tramping across the frozen Midwest in search of the only eagle’s nest that remained in Iowa by 1977, holding out hope that the tale may well be changed in the event that they could find and protect a viable egg. Even probably the most optimistic could never have predicted the resiliency of the birds and the ferocity in their comeback. In Iowa, environmentalists set a goal of 10 or 20 nests by 2010. But population growth took the U.S… Department of Wildlife abruptly. Last year, federal staffers lost count at 254 nests, nearly as many as once existed within the continental U.S. The birds left the Endangered Species List in 2007. This year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources spotted 47 new eagle territories and stopped counting. Busloads of holiday makers now visit Iowa and Illinois within the winter—a trip that defies logic and comfort—to go on “eagle safaris” with leaders like Bob Motz. The retired biology teacher offers your a refund if you happen to don’t see eagles, “and I’ve never needed to give it back,” he says. Indeed, although the birds face continuing threats from pollution, it need to be easy money these days.
On a contemporary walk with my children, I lost track of the way many eagles we saw fishing and nesting in trees. As one giant bird wheeled toward us and dove for fish, my daughter screamed, “Don’t eat me!” Then she returned to ignoring the bird. The shortage of portentous symbolism the development held for her is a cause for celebration. For me, the eagle’s return is a scene of renewal on the time of the year that seems most barren and bleak, a reminder that a few dedicated people can change the narrative for a species or an ecosystem. For her, it’s a reason to seem forward to January.
Issue: September 2011