Bald eagles, once a rare sight, can be viewed regularly these winter mornings as the birds break from their perches in the cottonwoods along the Wisconsin River, then circle, glide and swoop over the water in pursuit of food.
"The eagles are definitely here now," said Tom Jackson, director of the chamber of commerce in this handsome little town, where eagle memorabilia are sold in several stores and the local vineyard bottles Eagle Red and Eagle White wine.In fact, the eagles are "definitely here" in other parts of Wisconsin as well - and in Minnesota, Michigan and other parts of the United States. After years of concern that the national symbol could go the way of the passenger pigeon and dodo bird, the American bald eagle is making a strong comeback.
Last year, 326 eagle nests were counted in Wisconsin, and 400 new eaglets were born. In Minnesota, 372 nests were counted, while Michigan had 161.
By comparison, in 1973 there were only 314 pairs of nesting birds in the entire central Midwest, according to James Engel, federal endangered species coordinator for the area.
Illinois has quadrupled its nesting pairs from two in 1981 to eight last year. But more than 1,400 eagles spend winter in the state each year, along the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois Rivers.
Iowa had one nest in 1981, but six last year. And a reintroduction program is underway in Indiana, which had no nesting eagles in 1981, as well as in 15 other states.
Eagles are said to be breeding in North Carolina and New York for the first time in recent history. They are recovering nicely in the Chesapeake Bay area, and are so numerous in Florida that eggs are being collected and relocated to other Southern states.
Nationwide, experts believe, there now are more than 2,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states, compared with 1,400 in 1983. And in the early 1960s, an Audubon Society survey turned up only 400.
"I think, if recovery continues to go the way it has now, in five or six years down the road, the eagle will be down-listed (from endangered status) throughout the United States," said Andrew Robinson, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery program on the West Coast.
The eagle's recovery has been so strong in the last few years that a General Accounting Office survey in December criticized the Fish and Wildlife Service for ignoring other endangered species - the spotfin chub, ridgenose rattlesnake and blackfooted ferret - in favor of the bald eagle and other "species with high public appeal."
Bald eagles now are classified as endangered in 43 states. In Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, they are considered threatened. In Alaska, which has 20,000 to 30,000, they are abundant.
Ecological detective work traced the prime cause of the bird's decline to DDT, a pesticide that was banned in 1972. Eagles, which are at the top of the food chain, ingested DDT from a variety of sources. Its effect was to reduce the calcium content and shell thickness of the eggs they laid to a point where the nesting adult routinely crushed them.
But there were other reasons for the bird's decline. Forests were cleared for farmland, depriving them of roosting and nesting areas. Waters became polluted, depriving them of spawning fish. Uninsulated high-voltage power lines electrocuted them.
Indians shot them for their feathers, talons, beaks and skulls, which are used in tribal religious ceremonies. Alaskan fishermen shot them because the birds raided their salmon traps, and some Western ranchers shot them in the belief that they fed on young sheep.
"But I have a hard time believing that," said Robinson, who considers the eagle an "inefficient predator, better at eating dead fish on the bank than it is at catching live ones."
Reintroduction programs by state, federal and private conservationists are given much of the credit for the eagle's comeback.
Other factors also have contributed to the comeback, said Paul Nickerson, a federal wildlife biologist in Boston. Among them, he said, are lakes, streams, rivers and oceansides that have been cleaned up as a result of the Clean Water Act.