While Midwesterners run around frantically searching for the perfect card or gift to profess their love on Valentine’s Day, eagles also are engaging in dramatic courtship displays.
Bald eagle pairs engage in numerous courtship rituals. The most famous ritual is the "cartwheel courtship flight.” This involves two bald eagles flying up high, locking talons, spinning like a cartwheel while falling toward the ground, and breaking apart at the last minute. A courting pair also may chase each other before locking talons and doing aerial rolls. Many of these behaviors test the strength and agility of the potential mate.
February is courting season, which explains why I recently saw a pair of “love birds” perched in the grove at Enchanted Acres. It also explains why farm visitors have seen eagles soaring over our little North Iowa farm. Eagle numbers have been strong this winter in Iowa as noted by the number of them feeding on roadkill along our rural roads. Until I decided to research eagles for this blog post, I had no idea that Iowa’s Bald Eagle population increases during the winter months.
Bald Eagles are migratory, but they only travel as far as necessary to find food. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), eagles wintering in Iowa likely came from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. They will lay their eggs and hatch their young before returning to their “summer homes.”
Female eagles begin laying eggs mid-February in our region. (Nesting begins in November in the southeastern part of the United States. In Alaska, eagles don’t lay eggs until late March or early April.) The countdown to Spring is on once an egg is laid in Iowa. Eagles incubate their eggs for about 35 days, and incubation begins as soon as the first eggs is laid. The second egg usually appears within 36 to 72 hours. Occasionally, a clutch of three eggs is produced.
When I was a kid, we had to travel along the Mississippi River to see the American Bald Eagle. It was a magical day when my mom and grandma packed the car with fried chicken, potato salad and homemade apple pie. We would enjoy a picnic at Pikes Peak State Park while watching the eagles.
The largest concentration of eagles in the Midwest is still found along the Mighty Mississippi for good reason. There is an abundance of food – primarily fish – and open water. In addition, eagles need places to roost during the night and perch during the day. Roosts are chosen by the eagles to provide protection from the weather and avoid disturbances. Bald eagles generally roost together in large mature trees surrounded by a buffer of smaller trees.
It has become more and more common to find eagles wintering across the state of Iowa thanks to the 1978 Endangered Species Act, which gave Bald Eagle additional protection from human persecution and disturbance. This Act also created programs for the conservation of threatened and endangered animals and prohibited habitat destruction that would jeopardize the existence of any endangered species.
Iowa’s resident eagles rarely leave the state, according to the DNR. The number of nests in Iowa has increased almost five times since the 1990s with more than 500 nests statewide now. To learn more about Iowa’s annual bald eagle population survey and where to go eagle watching, click here: https://bit.ly/3FQpuaW