Now's the perfect time for a local eagle sighting

Sunday, January 27, 2002

Have you ever seen a bald eagle outside of a zoo? Well, if you live in Southeast Missouri, there is a good chance you have.

To the surprise of many people, Missouri is one of the leading bald eagle states. Each fall, thousands of these great birds migrate south from their nesting range in Canada and the Great Lakes states to hunt around the open water of our rivers and lakes.

Many take up residence wherever they find open water and plentiful food. Missouri, because of its big rivers, many lakes and wetland areas, is especially attractive to these huge, magnificent birds.

The Missouri Department of Conservation conducts an annual mid-winter eagle survey the first week in January. This year's results aren't in yet, but 2001 was a record year with 2,866 bald eagles counted. Of that record-setting total, 179 eagles were counted along the Mississippi River in Perry, Cape Girardeau, Scott, and Mississippi counties.

So, if you would like to get a good look at some bald eagles, now is a great time to do it.

A relatively mild winter has resulted in fewer birds migrating south this year, but the birds are there in numbers and worth looking at. Grab binoculars or, better yet, a spotting scope and get going. If you live anywhere near the Mississippi River, look for birds perched in trees along the river bank. On a sunny day, the bright white head and tail feathers of the adult birds are easy to spot. Juveniles (less than three years old) lack the tell-tale white markings and are a little more difficult to locate. In the Cape Girardeau area, you can get an excellent view of the river from several locations: the floodwall, Red Star Access (North Main Street), Cape Rock Overlook and Trail of Tears State Park.

If you don't live near the river, excellent viewing opportunities are at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge and Duck Creek Conservation Area, both north of Puxico, Mo., on Highway 51.

At waterfowl areas, eagles feed primarily on dead and injured waterfowl. At rivers and lakes, fish make up most of their diet. Eagles usually locate prey by soaring or watching from a high perch. Piracy is another way eagles get food. If one bird makes a prize catch, others will often try to take the food away. In addition to feeding sites, a wintering area usually contains isolated night roosts.

In 1782, the year the bald eagle was formally adopted as our national emblem, bald eagles were probably flourishing with as many as 20,000 nesting pairs in what is now the United States.

Today, there are more than 10,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. In 1995, the bald eagle's status was downgraded from endangered to threatened throughout this range.

Although to closely protect Missouri's nesting eagles, bald eagles are still recognized as a state endangered species.

The federal Eagle Protection Act of 1975 makes it a felony to shoot an eagle. Persons convicted of killing a bald or golden eagle are subject to a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment up to one year, or both. It is also illegal to possess an eagle, alive or dead, or any eagle parts or products without a permit.

If you have information about an eagle death, contact your local conservation agent or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eagle killings can be reported in confidence by calling Operation Game Thief at 1-800-392-1111.

A $500 reward is offered to those who provide information leading to the conviction of a person who kills a bald eagle.

Gene Myers is a Missouri Dept. of Conservation agent in Cape Girardeau County

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