Why Do We Care So Much About Bald Eagles?


The question that was posed again and again  in a course I took last fall was, Why Do We Care So Much About Nature.  The course was concerned about the relationship between faith, nature and politics.  I think the reason we care about nature is more personal.

Many feel a certain responsibility for the natural resources and wildlife that share our biosphere.  Without nature, what do we have?

One of the wildlife success stories in this state and across the country is the recovery of the bald eagle population.

There were many reasons why the bald eagle was pushed to near extinction; loss of habitat, hunting of eagles,  overhunting of food sources like ducks and shorebirds, the use of DDT.

What was done to bring the Bald Eagle back?

* We passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act which bans shooting eagles

* We banned the use of DDT as an insecticide in 1972

*We’ve improved the quality of water in lakes and streams, thanks to the Clean Water Act

*We are protecting eagle nesting sites

Bald Eagle Roost Counts

In March 1988, a small group of people met to talk about the future of the bald eagles using Ferry Bluff as a night roost in winter.  In July of that year the Ferry Bluff sanctuary was incorporated.  That same year, Ferry Bluff was designated a state natural area, the first in the state.  And in September of that year roosts counts began.

I did my first count a few years at the Sugar Loaf roost with my friend Kay from Ferry Bluff Eagle Council (FBEC) and a student from UW-Madison.  FBEC has conducted roost counts to track the wintering bald eagle population in our area each winter since 1989.

We arrived at the roost, off the Wisconsin River near Prairie du Sac, in late afternoon.   It was February and it was cold as you might expect.

Kay is the experienced one in the group so she handed me a clip board with a chart where I wrote down the number of eagles we saw and whether they were adult or juvenile birds.

At first, there were a few birds that came into the roost.  Mind you, these birds were flying high above us.  Kay trained her binoculars on the birds as they came in.  I couldn’t tell one bird from another.

Once it started to get dark the birds started coming in quickly.  I was amazed at the numbers of birds, many from the direction of the river.

Kay could keep the birds separate as she counted.  As it got dark  we had counted 30 eagles that came into and stayed in the roost for the night.

Sugar Loaf is just one of nine roosts covered by FBEC in the Sauk Prairie and Spring Green areas. The counts take place bi-weekly from December to the end of February each winter.  Volunteers head to the roosts on Sunday afternoons and stay until sunset.

Many of the eagles that winter along the Wisconsin River have left the area by now  and have returned to their territory, presumably to the north and east.  The last roost count for this  season was 2/24/13 with a total number of 91 eagles counted.   The highest number of eagles counted this winter during a Sunday roost count was 336.

You might wonder why these counts are so important.  I found this explanation on the FBEC web site:

“The counts are invaluable information used by FBEC to document the number and location of eagles in the area. Having conducted the roost counts since 1989, FBEC has established the best database on eagles in the area – a useful tool in working with governments, landowners, and others.

Variability in when eagles concentrate in the Sauk Prairie area is likely due to the interaction between eagle behavior and the vicissitudes of winter weather.  Looking for these patterns in the data across all of these years is a valuable role for FBEC and is critical for our understanding of winter eagle behavior.  When laws are made to protect eagle habitat, for example, the range of dates is important to consider. “

The bald eagle is no longer on the endangered species list.   The many bills passed, beginning with the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940, and efforts by volunteer groups today like the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council has made the return of the bald eagle a true success story.

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