Illinois is home to more than 100 pairs of bald eagles, a species once at risk that’s made an amazing recovery.
With more than 100 pairs nesting in Illinois now, the American bald eagle is ready to migrate off the state's list of threatened and endangered species.
The bald eagle already has been removed from the federal listing, and ornithologists say bald eagles are making a strong comeback in Illinois and elsewhere.
Seeing a bald eagle in Illinois once was a rare event for birders. Now eagles are abundant, especially during winter months. Last Sunday, 107 eagles were visible from the outdoors viewing deck at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center at the Starved Rock Lock and Dam near Utica.
“Winter surveys are showing good numbers of immatures, indicating a healthy age structure,” according to recommendations from the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board.
The board will review comments received and additional information at its Feb. 20 meeting in Champaign at the offices of the Illinois Natural History Survey.
“At that time, we would be prepared to take action on those species,” says Anne Mankowski, director of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board.
An additional public hearing probably will be necessary for some listing changes if new information is brought to light at the meeting, she says. The public comment period closes Feb. 6.
A lack of young eagles was one of the first warning signs that something was amiss more than 40 years ago. Observers were seeing very few young eagles, leading them to investigate why so few immature birds were surviving.
Now “the trajectory is really positive,” says Mike Ward, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey who served on the protection board’s technical advisory committee for birds. “The same thing goes for sandhill cranes and Henslow’s sparrows.”
Still, despite the success of the eagle comeback, some people remain concerned about delisting the bald eagle and some other Illinois birds that are being found in greater numbers.
“I was surprised at how many people were up in arms about taking the bald eagle off the list,” Ward says. “I think all of us on the committee (reviewing bird species) was really surprised at all the negative stuff coming out (from the public). I mean, we’re on the side of birds. I don’t think people realize how common some of these birds have become.”
Ward says it is the goal of everyone working on behalf of endangered species to help rare birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and others recover — and find their way off the list.
Ward says the public is generally unaware of the committees of experts who are enlisted to advise the board. For birds, especially, counts conducted at various times of the year can provide a warning when the trends show declines over time.
“They didn’t know there were technical advisory committees, and we are using the best data available,” he says. “We have a lot of population data.”
Ward says most people who expressed concerns backed off when presented with statewide population information. Many watch birds in just one part of the state and may not realize a particular bird is common elsewhere.
“These listings are based on statewide status for every species and are not site-specific,” Mankowski says. “The board and the Endangered Species Technical Advisory Committees that advise the board did a pretty outstanding job for a group of volunteers.”
The board has been without a budget or dedicated staff since 2000. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has helped support the board in the interim, supporting a contract position for director.
One reason for the comeback, Ward says, is that efforts to reduce pollution have paid off.
“It really shows that the Clean Water Act and cleaning up the environment in general has really helped these birds,” Ward says. “We are reaping the benefits of these laws. This is positive news — not the usual negative news.”
Ward says he would prefer attention be turned to Illinois birds truly in jeopardy, such as greater prairie chickens, loggerhead shrikes, black-billed cuckoos and the whippoorwill.
Little information on the status of some nocturnal birds, such as whippoorwills, is available, Ward says. But it appears the bird’s signature call of the nighttime forest has all but disappeared in some parts of the state.
The board soon will review research proposals to address species such as the whippoorwills and its relative, the Chuck-wills-widow.
Ward says experts also are concerned about grassland birds such as upland sandpipers and birds that once flourished in field edges and woodlots.
Even Eastern kingbirds and field sparrows — birds that seem to be ubiquitous in summer — are declining.
“These birds need that messy agricultural landscape,” Ward says. “These birds are all showing the same downward spiral. It is a difficult thing to stop.”
Without a budget, the board has turned to the Wildlife Preservation Fund, which gets its money from a tax check-off on Illinois state tax returns.
Mankowski says the Wildlife Preservation Fund has been able to provide about $25,000 per year to help the board fund research to help rare species recover.
The board has funded 70 research projects in just over 20 years, she says. The Wildlife Preservation Fund funded most of those.
“If we get a budget again, we will crank up the amount of money we spend on research,” says Mankowski, who has been the board’s director since late last year. “We have big plans.”
How many species are endangered?
The last review of the state endangered species list occurred in 2004. Currently, there are 144 animals and 339 plants classified as threatened or endangered.
If all of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board recommendations are adopted, the number will drop slightly to 482. The list must be reviewed every five years.
What does it take to become endangered?
An animal is classified as endangered if it is in danger of extinction as a breeding species in the wild within all or a portion of its range in Illinois. A plant is endangered if fewer than 100 individuals are found in four or fewer areas.
Species are threatened if they could become endangered in the foreseeable future.
On the Web:
Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board and a complete list of recommendations can be found at: http://dnr.state.il.us/espb
Did you know?
Bald eagles do not get their characteristic white head and tail for about five years.