Guttenberg has a natural habitat for the American bald eagle

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A pair of eagles, assumed to be mates, soak in the evening sunset along the Turkey River in Garber. (Press photo by Melissa Spielbauer Combs)

By Caroline Rosacker

The Driftless Area, known for its deeply carved river valleys and rolling hills, is the perfect habitatfor the American bald eagle. 

The multi-state region which includes portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois has become the nesting ground for our nation's symbol. The eagle, which was once nearly extinct, has found a home all throughout Iowa, seeing its greatest numbers returning to the skies of the Driftless Area. 

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Volunteer Wildlife Monitoring Program, there are 71 active eagle nests in Clayton County.

The bald eagle became the United States national emblem in 1782. It was estimated there were as many as 100,000 wild nesting pairs inhabiting our nation. 

The number of eagles started to decline in the 1940s as a result of extensive shooting and nesting habitat loss. During this time Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, making it illegal to kill, sell or possess the bird. 

After World War II the introduction of DDT into our environment created a sharp decline in eagle nests. The birds would ingest pesticide-contaminated fish, which resulted in producing a thin eggshell that would often break during incubation. The pesticide was later banned.

In 1973 a newly-created Endangered Species Act placed the bald eagle on the list of birds in danger of extinction in five states. Thanks to the ban on DDT, other conservation measures, and captive breeding programs, bald eagle numbers began to rebound. 

In 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the list of threatened and endangered species. The number of eagles continues to increase, thanks to conservation methods put into place to protect the majestic raptor. 

We are fortunate in our community to be able to experience firsthand the eagle's natural habitat,  mating, feeding and flight patterns.   

Anatomy of a hunter

The eagle uses its keen vision to spot even the smallest prey from approximately a mile away. Each eye has two centers of focus which allow for simultaneous forward and lateral vision and a sliding translucent inner eyelid that wipes away debris every few seconds, similar to the windshield wipers on a vehicle. 

The raptors' strong leg muscles are anchored to the leg bones, which close the talons by contracting its tendons. 

Each foot has four sharp powerful talons, up to two inches long in the female and 1.5 inches in the male. Three talons face forward and one faces back, providing a viselike grip to carry its prey for long periods of time.

Its distinctive beak tapers at the end to a sharp hook that enables the bird to snag and tear up its prey. Openings on either side of the beak enable breathing while diving at high rates of speed. 

With weights of 8-14 pounds, depending upon gender with the female being larger, its six-to-eight foot wing-span allows the bird to swoop down at speeds of 30 miles per hour to snatch up its prey. If a fish is too heavy for an eagle to carry, the wings can also serve as primitive oars allowing it to swim to shore. 

Mating rituals

Scientists are not clear on the qualities that eagles look for in a mate. A courting pair may be observed chasing one another in the air playfully or taking on a roller coaster flight pattern. The cartwheel courtship flight is the most famous and recognizable form of the mating ritual. During this ritual two eagles will fly high in the sky, lock talons and begin their decent in a cartwheel spin, breaking apart at the last minute and in some cases actually hitting the ground. 

After a mate is found, they begin the process of building their nest.This laborious process can take up to a couple of months and is a possible form of bonding. 

The couple starts with larger branches to create a sturdy base and finishes the interior of the nest with a lining of grasses, cornhusks, pine straw and other soft materials. The egg cup is composed of fine plant material that helps insulate the eggs.

As the pair gets closer to mating, they ease up on their showy aerial displays and focus on more intimate behaviors such as preening and calling to each other, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder or sitting next to one another in the nest. 

Due to unpreditable weather, Guttenberg has chosen not to organize an Eagle Watch Weekend this year. 

We have the opportunity to live, work and play in this astonishing Driftless Area. Slow down your pace and take some time to enjoy the natural beauty of your surroundings and the magnificent   American bald eagle.,

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