(I originally published this story in Ode Magazine in December 2010. But Ode is now defunct, and I can't find a copy online, so I'm posting it here...).
In the Iowa winter, as the poet Robert Hass wrote, “a farmer’s dreams are narrow,” and autumn sometimes inspires me with a kind of dread as I work in the garden that will soon be buried under a foot of snow. As temperatures drop to -20 Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit), it is easy to feel that life has been banished forever. But this winter, as the river that runs past my window becomes a sluggish ice-jam, something miraculous will happen: the bald eagles will return.
To anyone familiar with the giant birds primarily through American patriotic kitsch, the sight may not seem surprising or particularly moving. But after the bald eagle became our national symbol in 1782, Americans quickly and with a grim irony drove it to the brink of extinction. In 1973, two years before I was born, George Laycock chronicled the “impending disappearance of the bald eagle” in a book that details the manifold challenges facing the birds, from pollution to hunting to development. Laycock’s book, The Autumn of the Eagle, ostensibly advocates change, but reads more like a lament for a species that is already gone, complete with data charts and maps showing the extirpation
of the birds from the lower 48 states. From the 1930s to the 1960s, from west Texas to California, hunters developed the bizarre sport of aerial eagle hunting, killing thousands of eagles a year by blasting them with shotguns from the open windows of small airplanes. The practice first emerged as a response to sheep ranchers’ mistaken belief that the birds, which grow nearly four feet long and have a seven-foot wingspan, could
prey on young lambs, a myth akin to the persistent rumors that the birds snatched small children. But it quickly developed into a uniquely American high-octane sport. One legendary hunter, John Casparis, bragged that he could kill 1,000 a year by approaching
an eagle from behind, letting go of his plane’s controls and firing his sawed-off shotgun just before the craft stalled into a dive.
DDT was a far bigger threat. American farmers dumped thousands of tons of the insecticide on their crops each year throughout the 1950s and ’60s, before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring established the link to waning bird populations and helped launch
the American environmental movement. As DDT made its way through the food chain in ever-more-concentrated doses, it caused eagle shells to become thin and the eggs to become sterile. Against fierce industrial opposition, which continues today, the U.S.
banned DDT in 1972 and the birds were protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. But as a child, I never saw an eagle outside a zoo or a dollar bill. In one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful plays, A Winter’s Tale, a character who has just found a lost infant meets another who has just witnessed a death. “You have met with things dying,”
he says, “and I with things newborn,” and the moment shifts the play from tragedy to comedy. The eagle’s return marks a similar narrative shift, a victory for those who spent their Januaries tramping around the frozen Midwest looking for the single eagle’s
nest that remained in Iowa by 1977, holding out hope that the story could be changed if
they could find and protect a viable egg. Even the most optimistic could never have predicted the resiliency of the birds and the ferocity of their comeback. In Iowa, hopeful environmentalists set a goal of 10 or 20 nests by 2010. But exponential population growth took the Department of Wildlife by surprise. Last year, federal staffers lost count at 254 nests, nearly as many as once existed in the entire continental U.S. The birds left the Endangered Species List in 2007. This year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources spotted 47 new eagle territories and officially stopped trying to count every nest. Busloads of tourists now visit Iowa and Illinois in the winter—a trip that defies both logic and comfort—to go on “eagle safaris” with leaders like Bob Motz. The retired biology teacher from Rock Island, a town on the Illinois border, offers your money back if you don’t see eagles, “and I’ve never had to give it back,” he says. Indeed, although the birds face continuing threats from agricultural runoff and other pollution, it must be pretty easy money these days. On my most recent midwinter walk by the river with my children, I lost track of how many eagles we saw fishing and nesting in trees. As one bird, the size of a small car, wheeled towards us and dove for fish, my three-year-old daughter screamed “don’t eat me!,” but then quickly returned to eating snow and ignoring the birds. Her sense of normalcy, her absence of portentous symbolism, is a real cause for celebration. For me, the eagle’s return is an amazing scene of renewal at the moment of the year that seems most barren and bleak, a reminder that a few dedicated people can change the narrative for a species or an ecosystem. For my children, it's just another reason to look forward to January.