American Eagle
The Upper Mississippi River Valley

From its headwaters in Minnesota to the mouth of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois, the Upper Mississippi River is flanked by diverse terrain sheltering a wide variety of wildlife.  Nearby prairies make perfect havens for rabbits and mice.  Possum, skunks, red fox, deer, woodchucks and wild turkeys scurry amid the trees in the hardwood forests that cover the high bluffs and hillsides overlooking the river.  The waters are filled with fish and overhead, ducks and geese traverse the skies while bald eagles thrive in the upper branches of cottonwoods.

That’s right. Bald eagles have returned to the Upper Mississippi Valley. In the 1960s, ecologist and writer Rachel Carson, who had publicized the claim that DDT was killing bald eagles and other birds, organized a bald eagle count along the entire length of the river that turned up only 59 individuals. Now, up to 2,500 bald eagles spend the winter along the Mississippi, with a smaller — though increasing — number staying year-round to nest.

While most adult eagles that live in southern states will remain in their nesting area through the year, bald eagles that spend the mating season in colder regions must migrate to survive.  In October, juvenile eagles in Canada and the northern reaches of Minnesota and Wisconsin are the first to leave.  Even those migrating for the first time find their way by instinct. By mid-November, adult eagles that nest in these colder areas will also start to head south as their nesting lakes begin to freeze. 

It’s not the cold itself that poses the greatest danger when winter sets in. These birds are actually quite rugged. Instead, it’s the need for a stable food source that drives the migrations. Living in the cold requires more energy, and thus more food.  In winter, an eagle must consume 6 to 11 percent of its body weight each day.  Their primary food source is fish, supplemented by ducks, coots, carrion and small mammals. When ice begins to form their access to food is cut off, and eagles move to where the water is still open.

The migrating eagles make their way by riding thermals, currents of warmer air that rise from the bluffs and hillsides lining the river corridor. When conditions are right, bald eagles can travel up to 270 miles in a day.  But, when tailwinds dissipate or thermals are scarce, bald eagles will linger.  In time, many will find their way to the Upper Mississippi River Valley, where stretches of the river are fed by tributary waters and do not freeze.

Elsewhere on the river, human intervention has unintentionally created a favorable environment for raptors. At one time, the entire Upper Mississippi flowed freely from its source all the way to where it joins the Ohio River. In the 1930s, however, the US Army Corps of Engineers began constructing what is now a system of 29 locks and dams on the Mississippi.  Where surging rapids and waterfalls once prevailed, humans created a navigable transportation route that supports both recreation and commerce.  As it turns out, these changes were not only good for cargo barges that carry petroleum, coal, and agricultural goods. They were also good for the eagles.  In winter, when bald eagles spend upwards of 90 percent of daylight hours roosting in order to conserve their energy, the fish that have been stunned or killed in the turbulent waters around dams provide an easy meal.  Elsewhere, power plants use river water for cooling, then pump the warmed water back into the river. In these places, large groups of eagles can be seen gathering around the open waters, freed from the ice, where they can take advantage of plentiful, and accessible, supplies of gizzard shad and other fish. 

Near the end of winter, as early as February, those eagles that have migrated south begin to follow the thaw back to their northern homes. Others, like the nesting pair at the Iowa hatchery in American Eagle, never migrate. They stay within several square miles of their nesting site throughout the year. During the spring and summer, all the eagles in the area become very territorial, protecting the resources that will sustain their young.  But at least with the migrating  “visitors” gone, the riches of the Upper Mississippi River Valley belong to its year-round residents.

Photo © Neil Rettig

 

  • Tom Henderson

    It’s not only the Upper Mississippi where eagles have returned. In the last five years the Detroit River watershed has seen remarkable increases in the number of Bald Eagle nests, at least four on the Ontario side and one on the Detroit shore in the International Wildlife Refuge. None had existed on either bank for years and now nesting pairs remain all year. This marks an amazing improvement, evidence that the Detroit River is much cleaner now.

  • ed

    we in the central mn area had some eagle nests cut down in order to put in a walmart. just curdles my blood when i think of what they are doing to make a buck. the town is sartell, mn and the company that claims to have no idea of what happened one night when someone went into a wooded area and cut down the trees that had the nests. that town and company that developed the land are off the hook as well. ridiculous…

  • Barry in Boulder

    Here in Colorado, we too have seen significant increases in Bald Eagle numbers over the last decade or so. In the foothills and nearby plains to the northwest of Denver (Boulder, Longmont, Lyons, and adjacent rural areas) we have regular visits by dozens of eagles, especially during the winter months. It is a delight to see them!

  • Cristina

    Of course they are… that’s why Walmart is the devil, a polluting greedy devil… But on a lighter note, I was so pleasantly suprised to learn that I can see a bald eagle right here in Iowa. Being from CA, I didn’t know if I would ever have the chance to see one. It is very exciting.

  • Bob Herp

    It is amazing to see the work of Neil Rettig with up close shots of eagles and the struggles they endure. Living in northern Ohio we have monitored the return of eagle populous and their habits. I hope to one day be able to be face to face with a harpy eagle of which there are only a few around. Blessings on the work of Neil Rettig and crew. Thanks for the fine work.

  • Louie

    Here in N Fla. I have seen quite a growth in the bald eagle population,I never use to see them. Though in central Fla they are more common due to all the lakes in the region. The thrill I get each time I see one is very exciting.
    Such a beautiful masterful bird!

  • Chad

    I can confirm the Eagles in the upper Mississippi River Valley. Its really great when the waters start to freeze and they go to the open areas of the Mississippi in force. We can usually get pretty close and even watch them catch fish. Now thats amazing!

  • Wanda Pitser

    The San Juan islands in Washington State seem to have quite a few bald eagles. I was working in one of the resorts as a pastry chef and when the back doors were open it was hard to keep my mind on the job because I could hear the eagles in the trees outside the back door. They had nests in the trees which was near the water, and a lot of fish. One eagle caught a fish that was too big for it to fly away with and it was quite a site to see it struggle to gain momentum along the shoreline. The eagles were beautiful and caught the attention of everyone.

  • Joan Teich

    I’ve driven up and down the Mississippi from SE MN thru NE IA for 30 years and can’t figure out where the fish hatchery is.

  • jon

    I think that it was probably the Decorah Fish Management
    2321 Siewers Spring Rd.
    Decorah, IA 52101
    (563) 382-8324

  • Rex Klein

    Several of us watched this documentary on eagle breeding and migration along the Mississippi. It was a great show. Keep up the good work on protecting all our wildlife. This quality show makes makes me not want to watch the other garbage that is on TV daily.
    Rex Klein-Chairman>>>Great River Rumble

  • Jeff Kinstler

    I enjoy seeing this majestic bird in the Catskill Mtns. of New York state.

  • Dennis Luz

    A lot of photographers like to go to the area around Lock 14 in Iowa near Davenport to see the eagles fish. The Skagit Riveer valley in northern Washington State also has a large concentration of wintering eagles.

  • nellie prinsen

    We are seeing Bald Eagles in and around the Niagara Peninsula. They are a beautiful sight. Welcome back to this magnificent bird.

  • Ablubrd

    Indiana has a few eagles nests too – would luv for a webcam specialist to place webcams in their nests for our enjoyment!One we’ve observed is also near a small fish hatchery. They favor sycamore trees for nesting here.Our first bald eagle siting was awesome – the male flew down into the lake catching a fish for lunch!

  • Sandra

    My husband and I went to Brackendale, BC, Canada an hour north of Vancouver to see the winter eagle migration in early January. In 1994 there were between 3000-4000 eagles. This year there were only 950. They need help in the area as due to over salmon fishing and poisoning of local rivers not as many eagles go to the area. We saw less than 20 in one week.

  • Sandra

    But we do have a some resident eagles at Lake Sonoma in Sonoma County, northern California. They sometimes hang out in a tree where you can see them 20 feet away. It’s amazing!

  • Toni

    Nature is one of my very favorite series. This one had me absolutely mesmerized. The cameras were placed so perfectly and, with the narration, made for superb watching. We live in Central Illinois and would like to know some of the best places to watch closest to us. Is there a map of some sort that we can reference?

  • Denise

    We recently went to Canton Mo, in northeastern Missouri to view the eagles. The town is right on the Mississippi River, close to one of the locks. We saw several eagles that morning on our side of the river. I imagine there were more on the opposite side, but the fog was so thick, we couldn’t see them. We DID hear what seemed to be a large group of geese nearby–but didn’t catch site of them, due to the heavy fog.
    The eagles were amazing!! It was a real thrill for us to see them.
    I also saw one in Ironton MO last winter, sitting high in a tree near the highway. Earlier this winter, someone took a photo of an eagle sited here again and the photo was published in the local paper.
    Loved the program last night! Keep up the great work, PBS!!

  • tom

    yes what a magnificent bird!! I am halfway thru the “nature” program and I just wanted to say so far it is fantastically done as always!
    I also wanted to say here in the DC area we also have nesting eagles along the Potomac. Harpers Ferry has a few there, and several other spots on the Potomac as well. Like one of the guys in the show said, when I was a lilttle kid I had only seen photos of them, and thought they were on their way out, but now its really a common sight to see an eagle.
    I only hope this trend continues even tho they are off the endangered list now. I hope we continue to protect this most famous American bird!
    Well done guys!!

  • Jerry Erb

    The Army Corp of Enigneers has a great web-site listing the locks and dams along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. http://www.mvr.usace.army.mil/missriver/Eagle%20Watching/Eagle%20Count%202010.htm
    The closest to Toni of Central Illinois might be Starved Rock – near Utica, IL. Many have visitor centers, or at least parking lots/boat ramps, etc. The website has counts of the eagles observed at the various sites. I have seen lower numbers this year than I had seen last year. Too warm, or rivers at flood stage may have dispersed the eagles over wider areas of open water. I am planning on either going to Keokuk, or Le Claire, IA on Sunday. Some of my amateur eagle pics can be seen at http://picasaweb.google.com/JerryErbBlmgton/Eagles#

  • Regina

    My husband & I saw this program a few days ago & were very impressed by the photography, narration & the fine quality. We see a lot of bald eagles around the St. John’s (Newfoundland) area where we live & they certainly are majestic birds. I just ordered the DVD for a photographer friend who takes a lots of pictures of bald eagles in their environment but is very respectful of their space. Wonderful work! The hummingbird show was amazing as well.

  • Angela

    Late this Fall I spotted two bald eagles in two different locations. One was soaring high in Eagle River, WI, (Vilas County), the other not too far from Lake of the Clouds in Porcupine Mountain State Park. Growing up we visited this area often and in the mid to late 90’s we noticed an increase in their numbers in Rhinelander, Wisconsin as well. I count myself as among the fortunate.

  • Lori

    I will be moving to Minnesota this January and hope that I will be able to see one of these magnificent birds!!! (and boo to Walmart for cutting down trees with nests.)

  • Les Martz

    I saw 2 in flight, News Years Day near the I270 bridge over the Mississippi in Illinois. Also took photos of one on Lake Shelbyville, Illinois this past summer.

  • Doug Mattson

    When we were kid’s we would catch carp and throw them on the riverbank, the eagles would watch us and come in for a free meal.

  • Marlene Emmett

    My husband and I watched this wonderful program last night, it remeinded us both of the
    film “Contiental Divide” with John Beulishi and Blair Brown about an researcher who watched
    Bald Eagles. Last night’s film was facinating and also funny~ I broke out laughting when I saw
    an eagle “Skating across winter ice”. A cousin sends me photos of Eagles in Alaska .

  • Susan in Green Bay

    Due to the use of DDT I did not see wild eagles growing up in NE WI. I first noticed them along the Mississippi Valley but now it is common to see them in NE WI too. I notice one or two almost every time I head northwest from Green Bay. We also have many more of other birds of prey too, such as Red Tailed Hawks. I have also noticed smaller hawks (Sharp Shinned) in the city catching other smaller birds.

  • Bonnie, formerly in St. Louis

    Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the 1980s, a colleague and I took our high school students to the towns of Clarksville, Winfield and Louisiana, Missouri to see the clusters of bald eagles which nested along the River Road and fished on the down side of the dams at Clarksville and Winfield. As it got colder, we’d check with the Lockmasters at the dams to see if they’d begun to see the eagles. The worst weather for people (freezing, windy) is the best weather for eagles! We had to arrive by 8:00AM so that we could observe them fishing, eating their catch in the trees and soaring above our heads. A late arrival meant they’d already eaten and would be snoozing in the trees. During “counts”, the students learned that a squirrel’s nest with snow on top, on the other side of the river, can look very similar to a mature bald eagle! Over the years, we saw the dramatic change for the better as DDT was no longer in the food chain (banned in 1972). All of us feel very privileged to have watched hundreds of these magnificent birds being themselves in the wild!

  • kathleen

    I have been watching the pair of eagles on Pigs Eye Island in St Paul MN for at least 15 years or more. they stay all year round, dont migrate, as thewarm water affluent from the waste water management keeps the river open all year round. This year, on Pigs Eye, there are two nests. One on the NOrth end and one on the south. they will be hard to locate, once the trees leaf up but this is exciting. then further on down the river, just south of the 494 bridge is yet another eagles nest. so within about three miles there are three nests. i can see two of them from my mothers apt along the river. this is very exciting but as i say, i dont know how long i will be able to watch these nests when the trees leaf up. .

  • Alexis

    More Bald Eagle nest can be seen along I-55 from Manchac,La. where the swamp begins, to I-10 ( before intering Kenner, La ) headed toward New Orleans. The nest is surprisingly very close to the interstate. They are so close one can detect the white head if one is spotted purched atop a cypres tree. It is always a sight to behold because they are so beautiful.

  • Mary Feldner

    The eagle is just an amazing sight! At the end of Jan. to the middle of Feb. often times we can see over 100 eagles on highway 35 the River Road in WI. It just takes my breath away it is such a beautiful sight. The eagles at that time are coming from the South and going North to nest.

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  • Linda in Buffalo

    The Eagles in the Mississippi River Valley show was fabulous. The photography and videography was outstanding. I love watching the nesting pair of eagles at the Iroquois National Refuge in New York. I am so fortunate to have a wonderful place like that in my own backyard. It’s a real gem!!! The Bald Eagle is a magnificent bird and deserves everyones respect. Thank You for airing such a wonderful show.

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    She already made the ultimate career move, she married Cruise, didnt’ she?

  • an online banking

    I wonder why it is “Devil’s Water”? I guess Ken MC’s above comment sheds light on it. Stinky water.

  • Watch Online

    What about placing them in some ones car and opening the box and running like heck.

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  • Matthew

    I love going to the lake just to watch the eagles fly around. Love it best time to just sit and be ablivous to the world.

  • Max

    I love the eagle. In maine at by the St. John river you never saw eagles but now a watch eagles dive to catch fish all the time.

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