116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Thanks to an animal’s resilience — and human help — Decorah visitors can spot feathered celebrities perched in trees and soaring above this scenic northeast Iowa city.
Bald eagles, once common across much of North America, suffered from massive habitat loss as the human population soared and many were shot in an era when predators were despised.
The mighty birds suffered a further blow when DDT was introduced during the 1940s. The insecticide caused eagles to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke instead of hatching.
Eagle numbers plummeted, and Iowa’s last known nest was in the early twentieth century. They seemed gone for good.
Then, human help arrived. DDT was banned in 1972, and attitudes switched as the predator's environmental value became better appreciated. The bird was placed on the endangered species list and began a lusty recovery.
Iowa’s first modern eagle nest was spotted in Allamakee County in 1977. They’ve since expanded.
Now 400 to 500 pairs nest across most of the Hawkeye State. At least seven active nests are in the Cedar Rapids area.
Each winter, locally hatched eagles are joined by thousands of others that migrate south to winter along the Mississippi and ice-free stretches of other rivers.
Iowans might spot a bald eagle soaring overhead or perched high in a tree nearly anywhere, but a trip to Decorah is a must to see celebrity eagles.
With the relatively clear water of the Upper Iowa River flowing nearby plus many springs gushing from hillsides, it’s not surprising that eagles took to the area. Fish is their favorite meal, and trout abound in area streams.
As they move upstream, suckers add dining variety. Some eagles even snatch fish from Decorah’s state trout hatchery.
Falconer Bob Anderson mourned the decline of peregrine falcons, another beautiful raptor native to Iowa. He and others founded the Raptor Research Project to restore a population of falcons.
The group’s interest turned to bald eagles, which had begun nesting in the area. In 2010, the group set a webcam above an eagle nest near the hatchery. Eggs were laid. The eaglets hatched, were fed by their parents and grew feathers. And then they learned to fly.
“About 280 million people from all over the world enjoyed watching the eagles virtually,” said Amy Ries of the Raptor Research Project, making them among the world’s most-viewed birds.
Eagles tend to first nest in areas with the best habitat, usually big trees near water. Once those areas are occupied, new nest seekers must make nests in less optimal places.
“We are seeing this happen in Iowa,” Ries said. “Now eagles nest further from water and sometimes feed on dead baby pigs dumped in fields.”
Although bald eagles can be spotted nearly anywhere in Iowa, Decorah is a pleasant place to see them. By summer, eaglets have fledged but often fly over town. A massive nest is visible from a public trail.
Human visitors enjoy the area for the same reason as eagles. Cool springs and streams take the edge off summer’s heat and add to magnificent scenery.
Decorah, population 8,000, boasts more than eagles.
There’s the Vesterheim Museum, the Seed Savers Exchange, Luther College, bicycle and hiking trails all over, and plenty of restaurants, motels and campgrounds.