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Viewing Decorah’s celebrities: Bald eagles

A baby eagle looks around from its nest to see Decorah’s fish farm. The Raptor Resource Project first installed a webcam over an eagle’s nest in 2010, which has drawn millions of viewers. (Raptor Resource Project)

In this image from a live streaming video, an eagle stands over its newly hatched chicks in their nest in Decorah on April 3rd. Eagle Cam’s live video feed, which had more than 160 million views this season, will be retired until next year. (Bob Anderson / Raptor Resource Project)

Thanks to the resilience of an animal – and human help – visitors to Decorah can see feathered celebrities sitting in trees and soaring over this quaint northeastern Iowa city.

Bald eagles, once common across much of North America, suffered massive habitat loss as the human population skyrocketed, and many were shot at a time when predators were despised.

The mighty birds suffered another blow with the introduction of DDT in the 1940s. The insecticide caused eagles to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke instead of hatching.

The number of eagles declined, and Iowa’s last known nest was in the early 20th century. They seemed to be gone for good.

Then came human help. DDT was banned in 1972, and attitudes changed as the predator’s environmental value became more recognized. The bird was placed on the endangered species list and began a pleasurable recovery.

Iowa’s first modern eagle nest was sighted in Allamakee County in 1977. Since then, they have expanded.

400 to 500 pairs now nest in most of Hawkeye State. There are at least seven active nests in the Cedar Rapids area.

Each winter, the locally hatched eagles are joined by thousands of others who migrate south along the Mississippi and ice-free stretches of other rivers in winter.

habitat

Iowans could see a bald eagle hovering overhead or perched high in a tree almost anywhere, but a trip to Decorah is a must to see famous eagles.

With the relatively clear waters of the Upper Iowa River flowing nearby and plenty of springs gushing out of the hills, it’s not surprising that eagles came to the area. Fish is her favorite meal, and trout are abundant in the area’s streams.

As they move upstream, suction cups add variety to eating. Some eagles even snatch fish from Decorah’s state trout farm.

Falconer Bob Anderson mourned the demise of the peregrine falcon, another beautiful bird of prey that is native to Iowa. He and others founded the Raptor Research Project to restore a population of hawks.

The webcam

The group’s interest turned to bald eagles that had begun to nest in the area. In 2010, the group set up a webcam over an eagle’s nest near the hatchery. Eggs were laid. The young hatched, were fed by their parents and given feathers. And then they learned to fly.

“Approximately 280 million people from around the world enjoyed watching the eagles virtually,” said Amy Ries of the Raptor Research Project, which makes them the most-watched birds in the world.

Eagles tend to nest in areas with the best habitat first, usually in large trees near water. Once these areas are occupied, new nest seekers must build nests in less optimal locations.

“We see this in Iowa,” said Ries. “Now eagles nest farther from the water and sometimes feed on dead baby pigs that have been released into fields.”

View Decorah

Although bald eagles can be spotted almost anywhere in Iowa, Decorah is a fun place to see them. In summer the eagles are fully fledged, but often fly over the city. A massive nest is visible from a public path.

Human visitors enjoy the area for the same reason that eagles do. Cool springs and streams soften the heat of summer and contribute to a wonderful landscape.

Decorah, with a population of 8,000, has more than eagles.

There’s the Vesterheim Museum, Seed Savers Exchange, Luther College, bike and hiking trails everywhere, and plenty of restaurants, motels, and campsites.

One of D18’s parents rearranged the nest around the new young animal in Decorah in April 2014. (Decorah Eagle Cam via Ustream)

Snow covers a bald eagle’s nest in February 2011 while the parent sits on top of eggs. (Decorah Eagle Cam via Ustream)

A night shot shows a Decorah bald eagle with its first egg in 2015. (Raptor Resource Project)

The Decorah eagle nest is exceptionally large, weighing an estimated 2,100 pounds. (Raptor Resource Project)

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