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Eagle Season Begins in Illinois

When I grew up in Illinois, seeing a bald eagle would have been impossible or at least fantastic. On January 2, my family and I drove just two hours outside Chicago and got to see seven bald eagles fishing on the Illinois River by Starved Rock State Park. More regular guests, jaded by appearances of over 100 eagles, walked away disappointed. We couldn’t have been more delighted.

Now Illinois brags that it has the most bald eagles of any (continential) state. Alaska blows everybody away with 50% of the world’s population of 70,000, according to Bald Eagle InfoHaliaeetus leucocephalus only lives in North America and Ireland. The bird was upgraded from endangered to threatened in 1995, then totally bumped off the endangered species list in 2007, thanks largely to cracking down on poachers and DDT. The IUCN, which rates how vulnerable animals are, now dismissively says the bald eagle is of “least concern.”

Starved Rock Bald Eagle

The Mississippi River is where most Illinois eagles hang out and where most eagle-watching hotspots are, but Starved Rock is by far the closest place to Chicagoland. The number of eagles that visit the area has been climbing steadily since people started counting 15 years ago and no one knows how high it might go. (The eagle population is thought to have once been 100,000.)

Kevin Eubank, the head ranger at the dam where you do most eagle viewing, says the numbers hit a peak last February with 115. They’re coming down from Wisconsin and Canada, attracted by the open water the dam creates so they can fish. They strongly prefer fish, but Eubank says they’ve been seen eating roadkill deer, too. The jumping Asian carp are too big for them, he says. Which is a shame: how much would you like to see a bunch of eagles snatching invasive jumping fish from the water? During the day the eagles have a favorite tree on an island in the river, leading to some surreal photos of a tree full of eagles. At night they roost in the park’s canyon’s to get shelter from the wind.

“The colder the weather, the better,” says Eubank. Well, then, it looks like it’s going to be another great bald eagle season.

More places to see eagles
See more animals around Illinois and the Midwest

OUTDOOR: You can see the eagles from Starved Rock itself, but that’s up a lot of icy stairs outside. It’s still worth it, though. An eagle cirlced right over us. From the visitor’s center, you can walk out to the river on flat ground and see the eagles on their favorite tree.
INDOOR/OUTDOOR: You have indoor/outdoor options at both the park lodge or the closest and most ideal place, the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center, which has two stories of windows and outdoor decks. Don’t go to the 1930s lodge first; with its fireplaces, 1930s log ceiling and Irish coffee, you’ll never want to go out in the cold. 
TROLLEY: The park runs a trolley tour a few days a week. The big appeal here is that you’re in a heated box–though it was cancelled the day we went.
EAGLE WEEKEND: Thousands of people turn out for the runs Eagle Watch Weekend that IlIllinois Audubon runs. This year it’s Jan. 23-24. TIP: you can see as many eagles and avoid the crowds if you go during the week in late January or early February

Bonus species: Cooper’s hawk, tons of migrating geese, deer
Bonus Goofy YouTube Video: Let the Eagle Sour

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