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Eagles

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

"No prophet is without honor, save in his own country," says the Good Book. In the past ten years, Rock Islanders have learned just how true that is.

The great American Bald Eagle has been wintering at the downstream tip of Rock Island ever since 1933, when the completion of the first lock and dam in the Nine-foot Channel Project on the Upper Mississippi created pools of water free of ice below the dam. The open water allowed eagles to fish the whole winter. They arrived with cold weather in December and roosted in the island's trees until returning north late in February.

A few professional ornithologists and amateur bird watchers came each winter to see the eagles, but the rest of us had even forgotten that one of the great rivers of the world ran past our door, and we weren't about to notice birds fishing there.

Then in the 1980s, tourists—some even from other countries—began to show up to watch the eagles, drawn perhaps by environmental concerns for the eagle’s survival, or by its powerful symbol as our national bird, by the magnificence of the bird itself, circling high overhead, it's seven-foot wingspan stretched wide, and its snowy white head.

More tourists came, and suddenly small groups of Rock Islanders began to look up at the December skies or stop along the levees to look at flocks of eagles roosting in the island trees, or watch the birds dive, and emerge from the water with fish in their talons.

We discovered what the tourists already knew: a magnificence almost unbelievable. An eagle high overhead on a crisp winter morning still takes a few seconds to register. "Hey, that's really an eagle up there." The one hundredth is as breathtaking as the first.

"Where had we been all these years," we asked ourselves. We began to worry about habitat destruction. We cheered when the annual eagle count rose. We wrote eagle brochures, organized eagle watches and eagle walks. Grade schools studied eagles.

Finally, for the American Bald Eagle, honor in its own country.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.