It's hard to imagine that the bald eagle, stoic symbol of the United States, was once on the brink of extinction. Thanks to a booming human population and widespread use of the chemical DDT, bald eagles struggled to survive for many years in the 20th century.
But today, the bird is thriving once again, and the Jayhawk Audubon Society's Kaw Valley Eagles Day was a celebration of the bald eagle's resurgence. The 12th annual festival was Sunday at Free State High School and featured not only the majestic eagle but many of its flying friends as well.
"When we started, the eagles were at the lowest point, in terms of survival," said Jayhawk Audubon Society board member Ed Shaw, whose organization was founded in 1970. "It was a disaster. It had gotten down to something like 2,000 eagles" in the United States. Experts estimate there were as many as 50,000 bald eagles in the lower 48 states when the bird was named the country's national symbol in 1782.
But thanks to efforts by the government and organizations like the Audubon Society, bald eagles number close to 30,000 today.
Eagles Day drew a hearty crowd, which hovered around Parks and Recreation department employees holding falcons, owls and even a vulture. Many conservation organizations, such as Save the Wetlands, promoted their environmentally friendly messages. Children mingled at an arts and crafts table, and many created their own eagles out of clothespins and paint.
Eagles Day also included eagle-viewing jaunts throughout the day, where visitors scoured the land around Clinton Lake for the birds.
A curious crowd of about a dozen small children huddled about a large turkey vulture, perched on the arm of Tasha Schultz. Schultz, a naturalist at the Prairie Park Nature Center, described the bird - named Thor - and his eating habits and defense mechanisms. The bird's defense of vomiting its food was enough to scrunch the faces of several grossed-out onlookers.
Schultz said all the birds at the nature center come from rehabilitation clinics across the country.
"We want to raise the awareness of not only the eagles, but also to raise the awareness of the other birds in Kansas," she said. "You know they see them on the side of the road, but they don't know them."
Kay Coombs, Chanute, was chaperoning her three grandchildren, who have come to Eagles Day the last three years.
"The kids love the activities, and we enjoy going out in nature to see the eagles," she said. Coombs, a recently retired kindergarten teacher, said she often used knowledge she learned at Eagles Day to incorporate into her lesson plan.
Mike Watkins, a wildlife biologist for the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke to the crowd about eagle populations in Kansas. He said bald eagles are thriving in the state today, with 49 eaglets being hatched in the last year.
He said Eagles Day takes place this time of year to showcase the thousands of bald eagles that migrate to the region from the Dakotas, making this perfect eagle-watching season.
"The bald eagle is a tremendous success story," Watkins said. "If we're conscientious, we can do things to help the environment, and as a result, wildlife will benefit and flourish."