Bald Eagle Watching in Sauk-Prairie, Wis.

Once endangered, the bald eagle population in Sauk-Prairie, Wis., has soared in recent decades.

| December 1991/January 1992

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    The wings of a bald eagle span 7 feet.
    PHOTO: Gregory K. Scott Photo Researchers, Inc.
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    A bald eagle's  feet, eyes and large bill are yellow.
    Gregory K. Scott Photo Researchers, Inc.
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    These days, Sauk-Praire is so alive with bald eagles that it's hard to believe they were ever threatened by extinction.
    Gregory K. Scott Photo Researchers, Inc.

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An orange glow in the eastern sky announces that dawn is near. Shapes on the horizon take form as the ever-increasing brightness lights a hidden landscape. The sun's initial rays debut, prompting movement in distant treetops. A day of bald eagle watching has started.

Today begins the Eagle Lover's Rendezvous, along the lower Wisconsin River. Hundreds of wool-clad onlookers puff little billows of steam and wait patiently in the January dawn for the first giant bird to take flight.

Across the river, a majestic figure floats over the tree line. It soars gracefully and almost seems suspended in midair. Clicking cameras break the silence as a throng of birdwatchers holds its collective breath. A young boy excitedly whispers, "Is that one, Dad?" The answer is affirmative. Welcome to Sauk-Prairie, Wis., and the first day of the annual migration of the bald eagle.

Of 8,600 known birds of the world, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus, order Falconiformes) has gained more than its share of attention. Exclusive to North America, it has been a premier predator of the heavens for thousands of years, and justifiably so. An adult of this species has only one noteworthy enemy — man. Until recent decades, careless disregard for this beautiful bird nearly caused its extinction.

Bald eagles literally dominated the skies of North America before the 1800s. Shortly into the 19th century, however, habitat destruction and the shooting of eagles for sport started their gradual decline. With the birds careening dangerously toward extinction, the government initiated passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 and, a number of years later, the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Violators faced fines of up to $20,000 and one to five years imprisonment. Enforcement, though, was weak. By 1950, eagles no longer existed in many of their previous habitats.

With only 82 known pairs left nesting within its borders, the state of Wisconsin finally took action. In 1972 the bald eagle was placed on the Badger State's endangered species list. That same banner year, the federal government outlawed DDT and other organochlorine pesticides that had been contaminating the eagle's food chain. These actions marked the turning point for the eagle's restoration. Unfortunately, recovery has been slow.

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