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Examiner
  • Jeff Fox: Look and listen – take it all in

  • This winter I had two chances to take in a day at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the far northwest corner of Missouri. There are trumpeter swans, snow geese, harriers and thousands of ducks. And bald eagles – dozens of them.

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  • This winter I had two chances to take in a day at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the far northwest corner of Missouri. There are trumpeter swans, snow geese, harriers and thousands of ducks. And bald eagles – dozens of them.
    The place isn’t hard to find, but the drive is long enough and it’s in-the-middle-of-nowhere enough that the folks who show up – serious bird people, Scouts, others – are folks who really want to be there. Pack a sandwich, take good binoculars, and dress a little more warmly than you might think you need to. There’s nothing much to stop the December wind once you get down into the refuge itself. All of that adds to the specialness of it.
    Sadly, I cannot count myself among the serious bird people. I have patience and pretty good ears, but I just don’t have the eyes for it. If I can get the binoculars dialed in on a bald eagle sitting in a tree and wearing a “Hi, I’m Bob the bald eagle” nametag, then I’m pretty good on ID, but don’t ask me to sort out all those ducks.
    Heaven only knows what natural marvels my weak eyes have failed to find in the camouflage, on the horizon or high in the sky. Since I can’t readily spot the blue underside chin feathers of a warbling whatever at 150 yards, I have developed the habit of replacing that frustration with a heightened sense of the overall experience. Skip filling out the bird list and take in the line of trees with a half-dozen bald eagles, an impressive sight. Take in the sun and its limited help against the sharp wind. Listen to the ducks. Savor it all.
    There is an even bigger picture. As many can, I can recall when you just didn’t see bald eagles.
    The history of the bald eagle is as good as any about wanton waste, awareness and making amends. Before our European forebears showed up, here in what is now Missouri we had bald eagles, bears, elk, otters, mountain lions and even wolves. The old forebears had guns, they were in a hurry to get places and they didn’t let much get in their way. They didn’t care for bald eagles. Bang, bang.
    Then we started inventing better and better poisons to control unwanted the bugs that eat crops and spread disease. DDT seemed like a great idea at the time. It took a while to work out the science, but it turned out that stuff was keeping big predatory birds from reproducing. Rachel Carson put the pieces together in “Silent Spring” half a century ago, and it took another decade for the feds to get around to finally banning DDT. Now we look back and marvel at why it took so long. We also enforce strict laws against shooting raptors.
    Page 2 of 2 - And it was like flipping a switch. In 1963, there were a few hundred nesting pairs of bald eagles in the Lower 48, but those numbers have steadily improved. Now there are something like 10,000 nesting pairs, including more than 100 in Missouri, so many that it doesn’t seem like a big deal any more.
    But it is. Those other animals – bears, mountain lions, otters – are back in Missouri, too (except for wolves, a persistently unpopular species, though if you ever heard one howl you might change your mind). It is a big deal that we can hop in the car, at least at certain times of the year, and see dozens of bald eagles. It is a big deal what we’ve made such progress in less than a lifetime. The world gets less wild and free over time, but spaces set aside for eagles and geese and whatever else might need a place to spend the night are good for critters – and good for our souls.
    Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter: @Jeff_Fox
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