How much do eagles love Illinois?
The state, with its many rivers, has the second largest winter population of bald eagles in the country, according to Forest Preserve District of Will County program coordinator Jess McQuown.
“The only state that does better than us is Alaska, which I think is fair,” McQuown said with a chuckle. “Like, OK, that is better habitat. But even compared to Michigan, even compared to Wisconsin, Illinois (wins out).”
The state’s abundance of eagles is on proud display this month, as communities host eagle festivals large and small. One of the closest festivals for Chicagoans, the Will County forest preserves’ Eagle Watch on Jan. 14 in Channahon, will feature a good chance to see a nesting pair that likes to perch just across the Des Plaines River from the Four Rivers Environmental Education Center.
During cold stretches when smaller rivers freeze over, other eagles make their way to the Four Rivers stretch of the Des Plaines, McQuown said. She’s seen six at a time and a fellow naturalist has spotted 12.
“You are highly likely to see an eagle outside, as well as inside,” where the center has a spotter scope for magnified (and heated) viewing, McQuown said.
Once an endangered species, bald eagles rebounded after the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, from a low of about 420 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states to an estimated 71,400 today, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are an estimated 3,100 eagles wintering in at least 27 Illinois counties each year.
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Eagle Watch will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 14 at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. Participants can hike the center’s trails to look for bald eagles fishing and hunting for waterfowl on the Des Plaines River.
Inside the center, a bald eagle named Victor E. and four owls will be part of the bird presentations offered by Hoo’s Woods Raptor Center in Milton, Wisconsin. Two 45-minute bird presentations will take place at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. A 20-minute “meet and greet” is set for 12:30 p.m. Seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis.
Eagle Watch attendees can join 40-minute guided hikes to search for and learn about eagles, attend 15-minute “Talon Talks,” try family crafts or join an Eagle Eye Scavenger Hunt.
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Other festivals, according to the Illinois Office of Tourism, include Bald Eagle Days at the Quad City Conservation Alliance Expo Center in Rock Island from Friday through Sunday. The largest event in the Midwest dedicated to the bald eagle, Bald Eagle Days draws thousands of residents and visitors for live eagle programs and live bird of prey demonstrations, as well as displays, activities and bus tours for (wild) eagle viewing. Admission is $6 for adults and $1 for kids 6-15 years and is free for kids on Friday night, Jan. 6.
The Alton Eagle Ice Festival is a free public event held Saturday with an eagle meet and greet and a chance to get your picture taken with a bald eagle, as well as food trucks, drinks, ice carvers, Eagle Fest Beer from Old Bakery Beer Company, fire pits with s’mores kits for sale, and face painting for kids. The National Great Rivers Museum will offer talks by eagle experts and eagle film showings. Eagle shuttle tours at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. will showcase the best spots to view the birds. Tickets for the shuttle tours are $15.
Pere Marquette State Park Bald Eagle Days will be held in Grafton on Thursday and Jan. 19; Feb. 1, 3, 6, 7, 14, 16, 21, 22, 23, 24; and March 2 and 9. Visitors will learn to distinguish between immature and mature bald eagles, what eagles eat, and why they spend winter months in the area. There will be a short video presentation followed by a drive to view the wintering bald eagles. Programs begin at 8:30 a.m. and reservations are required.
Starved Rock Lodge at Starved Rock State Park offers bald eagle trolley tours in January and February. The trolley goes from the park to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center for eagle viewing and an educational program. Ticket price includes your selection from their trolley lunch menu and the tour. Tickets are $34 for adults and $29 for kids 10 and under.
Great River Eagle Days will be held in Quincy from Jan. 28 and 29. The Standing Bear Council will host their Winter Gathering and their annual Great River Eagle Days with a variety of activities throughout the weekend. The events, which are open to the public, honor Native American traditions with a variety of sacred ceremonies and entertainments. The traditional blessing of the eagle ceremony will be held Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Over 30 Native American vendors and food booths will be on site both days, and offerings will include authentic “Fry Bread.” This year the festival will again feature an expanded area for children’s educational and fun activities. Native American dancers and drummers will perform.