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Every year, thousands of American Bald Eagles escape the harsh northern winters by migrating to Missouri. It’s something that Missouri Conservation Educator Jeff Cantrell says is a remarkable success story.

“We now have a breeding population year-round, easily a couple hundred, but it’s much higher in the winter,” he said. “Eagles will migrate as far as there is water, mid-continent.”

But this wasn’t always the case.

DDT: The Bald Eagle’s Downfall

In the mid-1900s, the U.S. eagle population was at risk of extinction largely due to an insecticide known as DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. It was used to control insects that spread diseases like malaria. It was sprayed on crops, livestock, and even children in the 1940s. It’s what is known as a forever chemical, that can take over a decade to break down, accumulates in fatty tissues, and has been linked to cancer, birth defects, and reduce fertility.

Often mistaken for hawks or golden eagles, juvenile bald eagles are mottled with brown and white. Courtesy: Blake Rains, The Wandering Rains

DDT residues were washed into waterways where bald eagles’ main food source was poisoned. As eagles ate contaminated fish, it poisoned the raptors and affected their ability to reproduce. The eggshells of their eggs would easily break during incubation or fail to hatch at all.

Eventually, DDT was banned, but the chemical decimated the eagle population. Despite efforts to get a year-round breeding population in Missouri, the raptors hadn’t responded.

Eagle Hacking Success

In 1981, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U.S. Department of Wildlife and Fish, and Springfield’s Dickerson Park Zoo joined forces to restore the populations through eagle hacking–a controlled way to raise and release bald eagles in a simulated wild environment.

Bantam hens, chickens that are good mothers and will hatch or raise another bird’s eggs, would incubate eagle eggs until the eaglets hatched. Eventually, eaglets were taken to hacking towers at the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge and Schell Osage Conservation Area to be raised. The sites were chosen for being good wetland habitats, and were easy for wildlife agents and biologists to protect.

The hacking towers mimic natural nests where the eaglets are fed, monitored, and they grant safety from raccoons and great horned owls.

“As a wildlife college student, I was lucky enough to be around and play a small part in this, volunteering some evenings and weekends. Later, I got to assist the state ornithologist Jim D. Wilson, now deceased, with some weekends at Schell Osage’s hacking program,” Cantrell said.

74 young bald eagles thrived and graduated from the hacking towers during that time. The birds migrated on the area and built nests. Missouri’s restoration program was showing promise and nearly 20 years later, these efforts have proved to be a lasting success.

Where To See Eagles In Southwest Missouri

In 2004, Cantrell set up spotting scopes in southwest Missouri, and over time, viewing eagles turned into a community event. In Stella, Missouri, before the COVID-19 pandemic, anywhere from 1,000-1,400 people would show up to see the migrating eagles settle. But due to the private land, small highways, trespassers, and lack of public land to spread out on, he says the event turned into a safety hazard and was no longer hosted by the MDC. But he still encourages others to get out to see the majestic bird.

Courtesy: Blake Rains, The Wandering Rains

“Get out and enjoy nature, stay educated on the land around you. Winter is great for a drive or a hike outdoors,” Cantrell said. “To view eagles now, I recommend a drive around the Wheaton, Exeter, Stella, Newtonia area of Barry & Newton Counties here in Missouri. Stockton Lake and Roaring River State Park have public lands to walk, set up a spotting scope and enjoy eagle behavior as well.”

What Threatens Eagles Now?

He says bird flu is a threat, but not something that can really be controlled in the wild. The MDC does what it can along with the health department, to help the private sector in isolating cases.

Cantrell emphasizes that education is a constant need as new generations come forth. “Know your sources. Eagles won’t take too much off the ground unless it’s already dead. They’ll scavenge. They won’t pick up dogs or children.”

How Long Are Wintering Eagles In Missouri?

Cantrell says it depends on how soon a hard winter sets in. When lakes and waterways freeze over up north, then they start to migrate. Late November or early December to late February is a good time to see the birds of prey in Missouri.

“Everything is connected,” he said. “Habitat and water quality are very important. We have several bald eagle nests in the Stockton and Truman Lake areas, and along the rivers of Big Sugar, Elk, Spring, and Shoal Creek. This summer, our float trips will be rewarded with wonderful “eagle family” sightings.”

Hundreds of wintering eagles can be seen in southwest Missouri. You can see more wildlife photos from Blake Rains of The Wandering Rains by following his Facebook page here.