America's symbol inspires awe - and draws tourists

Festivals honoring the bald eagle, which has made a dramatic comeback, are springing up across America.

Virtually patriotism on wing, the majestic bald eagle swoops low over the Mississippi River, drops its talons below water line, then rises with a flopping fish in its grasp.

Most of the crowd gathered on the ramparts of Lock and Dam No. 19 and elsewhere around this river park barely notice the catch. They're too busy watching the rest of the record number of eagles - 730 by one count - that have showed up for this year's Keokuk Bald Eagle Appreciation Days.

Dozens of the white-crowned raptors are lined up like sentries where ice floes border open water. A score are aloft, fishing, and many more roost in cottonwoods along the riverbank.

"They're incredible - beautiful and graceful, but there's something more, too," says David Demarais, a retiree who, along with his wife, drove three hours to see the eagles. "They have a certain spirit that touches you."

Americans love a comeback, and the bald eagle has gone from being a monument atop a flagpole to a resurrected, living, national symbol. As a survivor, the bird is starting to take on cult status.

In the 1990s the nation's symbol saw a well-documented resurgence throughout the continental United States. On the brink of extinction in the 1960s, the number of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states has increased to between 10,000 and 16,000 last year, when the bird was almost taken off the endangered-species list. Concern over habitat protection delayed a decision.

Now, not only are bald eagles back, but drafting close behind are legions of grounded admirers - few of whom describe themselves as "bird watchers."

Their wonder is not lost on chambers of commerce, state parks departments, and resort hotels, which are all climbing on the bald-is-beautiful bandwagon:

* Up and down the Mississippi, there are at least nine Keokuk-like festivals, weekends, or appreciation days devoted to the bald eagle.

* In Oklahoma, before 1990 there were barely 25 bald eagles in the state. Today, 25 different parks, recreation areas, and wildlife refuges have bald-eagle-viewing events during the winter.

* Several resort hotels offer eagle-watching packages. At Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, boat cruises take visitors to key roosting sites. The Villa Roma resort in New York's Catskill Mountains offers a naturalist-guided trip.

The lure of the bald eagle is something even the experts find difficult to articulate.

To be sure, songbirds are accorded a "Welcome Back Day" in three Florida cities, and swallows get a festival when they return to the San Juan Capistrano mission in California. Even the snow goose has a weekend in Smyrna, Del. But when it comes to avian obeisance, bald eagles are simply birds of a different feather.

Lori McKean, director of the Eagle Institute in Barryville, N.Y., says the birds hold special meaning for baby boomers. "A lot of people embracing [eagle watching] are people who, when they were a kid, never thought they would see an eagle - they were nearly extinct. [They] also feel like they had a role in creating the environmental consciousness that led to the eagle's recovery."

Still, Terrence Ingram, who heads the Eagle Nature Foundation in Apple River, Ill., worries that their recovery will be short-lived if adequate measures aren't taken to secure habitat. Eagles require sturdy, old-growth trees, like oaks, to support their enormous nests, but development threatens such trees.

Here in Keokuk, the corridors of the small town's only mall have practically been converted into a shrine. Booths offer paintings, photos, moldings, mugs, pins, and puzzles. All seven live eagle shows were full on Saturday.

The crowds by the river build at midday, watching the birds treat Big Muddy like a big smorgasbord. Fish passing over spillways are stunned or killed and float to the surface, and the eagles toss back herring like popcorn.

Five of the charismatic birds roosting in a tree have caused drivers to stop their cars and gawk, creating a Yellowstone Park-like jam.

"Whoa, look at that," says a man wearing a weatherbeaten tractor-logoed cap, as one bald eagle almost inverts himself to flash his talons at another bird. "Doesn't get any better than that." Maybe not: the symbol of America, once more aloft over America's largest river.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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