Winding a personal path through Starved Rock and the recovery of bald eagles

Bald eagles have made a remarkable recovery from near extinction and it shows around Chicago and Illinois.

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One of eight bald eagles viewed Monday in the area around Starved Rock while on a trolley tour.

One of eight bald eagles viewed Monday in the area around Starved Rock while on a trolley tour.

Barbara Cunningham

UTICA — Trolley driver Don Luttrell pointed, as we crossed the Route 178 bridge, “There’s one.” A mature bald eagle, vivid white head and tail, floated over the Illinois River between us and Plum Island.

With warm weather and open water, I thought one sighting would be good on our Starved Rock Lodge Eagle Trolley Tour. But we totaled eight Monday.

Eagles have come back.

Nearly 30 years ago, my wife-to-be and I both had Martin Luther King Day off. As we hiked at Starved Rock State Park, we decided it would be good to marry there. The planning woman was in and our Saturday was open. On a steamy day that summer, we were married on Starved Rock while visitors eased around our family and friends.

I like that history. There’s also a point. Back then we weren’t there in mid-January to see eagles, but to hike. Eagles were gradually coming back, but hadn’t rebounded like they have now.

Three bald eagles, one of many chainsaw carvings around Starved Rock State Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

Three bald eagles, one of many chainsaw carvings around Starved Rock State Park.

Dale Bowman

The recovery of bald eagles, after nearly going extinct, mirrors the arc around DDT being banned in 1972. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service described that as “the first step on the road to recovery for the bald eagle.”

By 1995, those populations considered endangered in the lower 48 states were changed to threatened. On June 28, 2007, they were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species.

We counted six on our way to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, on the other side of the river from the state park.

At the visitor center, Bob Petruney, park ranger for the Army Corps, showed a film, then led a discussion on eagles.

“Should have been here two or three weeks ago when we had 25-30,” he said about the polar outbreak around Christmas.

Our national symbol is less than a model citizen. Petruney called them scavengers or opportunists, that’s why they concentrate around dams and open water in winter.

“They are messy eaters that drop more than they eat,” he said.

They’re also thieves. I saw an eagle steal a fish from the talons of an osprey above the Kankakee River.

Mature male and female eagles look alike, but females grow bigger. Wingspans are 6 1/2 feet, give or take a foot. Bald eagles are in every state except Hawaii.

During Q & A, a kid brought down the room when he asked, “Do they fart?”

(There is an answer, which Petruney should know for the next time.)

Eagle nests used to be hush-hush. Now they’re all around the Chicago area. For years, one was on Chicago’s Southeast Side along the Calumet. Eagle nests look like a VW Bug made of sticks parked in a tree. They’re hard to miss. Luttrell pointed out several on our tour.

A relatively small bald eagle’s nest, one of several near and around the Starved Rock State Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

A relatively small bald eagle’s nest, one of several near and around the Starved Rock State Park.

Dale Bowman

Luttrell, in his Harley-Davidson jacket, is a natural tour driver. We learned about the Starved Rock murders in St. Louis Canyon, history of the CCC and Starved Rock, and an update on the Halfway House (guests included Abe Lincoln) on Dee Bennett Road. Luttrell showed us the bison at Buffalo Rock SP and gave a tour of Utica.

As he finished with a circle around the Starved Rock SP launch, Luttrell spotted eagle No. 8 on Plum Island.

It was time.

With eagles rebounding, eagle-watching events abound, including Bald Eagle Watch next weekend around Starved Rock. More at tinyurl.com/baldeaglewatchSP.

Eagle Trolley Tours (starvedrocklodge.com/activities/) are 11 a.m. through 2:30 p.m., Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in January and February. Register at (815) 220-7386. It’s $34 (lunch included), $25 for children 10 and younger.

The trolley for the bald eagle tour at Starved Rock State Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

The trolley for the bald eagle tour at Starved Rock State Park.

Dale Bowman

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