Winter is one of the best times to see bald eagles in Missouri. These dazzling giants often congregate around large bodies of water where fish are abundant. A few years ago, on a day much like today, Dean and I spotted a pair of adult bald eagles circling lazily on the warm, rising thermals of a mid-winter day. Their white head and tail feathers shone brightly against the sky. We watched the pair with excitement. Within minutes, a darker sub-adult eagle joined them. We were thrilled to get a rare glimpse of this eagle family, especially since we were so far from the large lakes and rivers where the eagles prefer to congregate.
In North America, the two largest eagle species are the bald eagle and the golden eagle. The golden eagle is the larger of the two north American species, but the bald eagle is more abundant and widely distributed throughout the United States. In 1782, when the bald eagle was chosen as the symbol for the newly formed United States of America, there were estimates of over 20,000 nesting pairs in the U.S. alone.
Despite this honor, many of the new settlers flooding into the country had no experience with such a large and imposing winged predator. Instead of being awed by its size and beauty, many feared it as a killer of livestock and as a potential threat to their own children. This belief drove generations of fear-killings and in some regions, bounties were given for bald eagle skulls.
The slaughter of bald eagles by early settlers was the beginning of generations of assaults on this American icon. In addition to ongoing habitat destruction, humans steadily encroached upon breeding and wintering grounds essential to bald eagles. Lakes and rivers were important human resources and the great eagle was of little concern.
Soon enough, eagles would face a much harsher and more insidious threat in the form of an insecticide known as DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. DDT was developed in the late 1800’s and would later be used in World War II to control insects that caused diseases such as typhus, malaria and dengue fever. By 1945, DDT was being used widely on livestock, food crops and even humans.
It took years to discover that DDT had become concentrated in the bodies of the fish upon which bald eagles fed, thinning the outer shells of their eggs. Most eagle eggs broke before the chicks could hatch. Without the ability to reproduce, the bald eagle began a dizzying dive into obliteration. But it wasn’t until 1962 that Rachel Carson’s pivotal book, Silent Spring, drew the world’s attention to the environmental destruction caused by DDT and other synthetic chemicals. DDT was banned in 1972, but not before it had reduced the bald eagle population to the brink of near extinction.
After spotting the trio of eagles circling in the same patch of sky for the third time in as many days, I grabbed my binoculars and walked out to the road for a wider view of the sky. By the time I got there, only one eagle remained circling in the sky. The other two had completely disappeared, just as they had done in previous days. I was bringing the binoculars down from my eyes when a bright object flashed near the ground to my right. When I trained the binoculars on the spot, I caught my breath.
There at the top of an old snag less than a quarter of a mile down the road, the flashing white crown of an adult bald eagle stood out in contrast to the blue sky. Wondering if the sub-adult was also nearby, I began to scan the area with the glasses. To my delight, I found it on the ground at the base of the snag. While most of its body was obscured by brush, I could tell it was feeding on something. Now I understood why they had hung around so long – they had found an easy meal.
The eagle family spent the next several days in the area working over the carcass and taking turns as lookout in the top of the snag or circling overhead. I was able to move much closer than my original vantage point and spent hours watching them feed, preen and sun themselves. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to closely watch such fantastic birds in their natural habitat.
Just a few years ago, seeing a bald eagle in the wild like this was almost unimaginable. But after years of conservation efforts and breeding programs, the only true sea eagle in the entire western hemisphere is once again gracing the skies of America. With its abundance of large rivers and lakes, Missouri has become one of the premier places on the continent to see bald eagles in large groups. Normally solitary, bald eagles migrate in the fall and congregate around large bodies of water, such as Table Rock Lake in south-central Missouri. According to some counts, more than 3,000 bald eagles call Missouri home during the winter months. Every year, more and more of those winter visitors become permanent, year-round residents.
The morning of the fourth day watching the eagle family I walked to my usual viewing spot, but the eagles were gone. Thinking that they had finally finished with the carcass, I decided to walk over and have a look around. As I walked I scanned the sky, just in case they happened to return. But as I neared the area, I became more and more confident that they had indeed gone for good. Because of my confidence, my approach was perhaps a little bolder than it should have been.
Just as I reached the base of the snag, the air was suddenly alive and in motion; a massive dark shape lifting above me, stirring the air like a propeller and causing a rushing sound that I am not equipped to describe. I crouched to the ground, then quickly turned my face towards it. All I saw was the eagle’s massive dark wings outlined in golden sunlight rising into the sky. Then it was gone.
I laughed out loud; the fear and amazement catching in my throat. I stood for some time catching my breath and reliving that incredible moment. Why had I not seen the eagle as I walked down the road? I realized that it must have been perched on a low branch in the snag that I had not seen before. Also, as I walked towards the snag along the road, the sun was directly in my eyes, blinding me to the eagle’s bright white head and tail feathers, which blended into the bright white barkless wood of the snag.
Eventually, the shock turned to curiosity and I began to explore the area beneath the snag. I found what remained of the deer carcass they had fed on – nothing left to it but bits of hide and bone. I searched in vain for eagle feathers, but all I found were a few tufts of white fluffy down caught on some brambles near the carcass. I carefully picked the fluff from the thorns and rubbed it gently between my fingers before letting in sail away in the breeze.
The eagles in my story aren’t just some kitschy symbol of America’s greatness as a nation, nor are they representative of mankind’s achievements or a metaphor for human ascension. Bald eagles are simply extremely large and impressive birds of prey in which we humans see – and sometimes experience – true greatness and beauty. And after this close encounter, I understood more keenly how mankind became captivated by these amazing giants and why so many have worked so hard for so long to save them from destruction.
A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted story of life on a rural Missouri homestead. Based on the changing landscape of the seasons and filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of hillbilly humor, noted author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson, spins a story of delight and enchantment. This is one journey you don’t want to miss!