Conservation Corner

Why is January the “Other” Fourth of July? 

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Most people focus their patriotic celebrations on the Fourth of July, when we light up the sky with spectacular displays of fireworks. But there’s a reason to celebrate patriotism in January too, and the sky even comes alive with a remarkable show to go along with it.

The bald eagle is the national symbol of the United States. As such it embodies strength, grace, patriotism and pride. Missouri has resident bald eagles that live here year-round. But it turns out that in December and January bald eagles descend upon our area like the burst of sparkles from a Fourth of July rocket. The Show-Me-State’s population of bald eagles swells many times over during winter, as eagles from northern states migrate here, joining our resident birds.

The reason for this wanderlust comes down to food. Fish are one of the bald eagle’s favorite foods, which is why they typically live near large bodies of water. As temperatures grow colder during winter, rivers and lakes up north become locked up with ice. This motivates eagles to travel to Missouri in search of open water. The St. Louis area is a prime stopping point for them, thanks to the convergence of North America’s two largest rivers, The Missouri and the Mississippi.

With eyesight up to five times better than a human, bald eagles are well-equipped to spot a fish while flying high above, zero in on it, then swoop down like a dive bomber to snatch it from the water. Bald eagles don’t really have bald heads, but their feet and powerful talons are bald of feathers. This keeps them from soaking up water and getting weighed down when grabbing their prey. Despite their preference for fish, bald eagles will eat some land dwelling prey as well, or even compete with vultures for a dinner of dead things.

So, if a bald eagle isn’t really bald, how did it get the name? It comes from an old English word “balde”, which actually meant white. White heads bald eagles do have, at least after they reach about three years or so of age. Prior to that, juvenile bald eagles display heads with brown, mottled feathers and may be hard to identify if you’re not paying close attention.

January is a great time to celebrate our national emblem—you might think of it as the “other” Fourth of July. Look for eagles in the wild near water like large lakes or rivers. 

There are also many eagle-watching festivals, especially near the Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. One of the largest is Eagle Days at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which is Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 18-19 this year. The free family event offers chances to see these impressive birds from the historic bridge though spotting scopes, and up close during live eagle educational programs.

No matter how you choose to welcome the majestic bald eagle, you won’t need to wait for July to enjoy an amazing show in the sky.

For information visit www.MDC.mo.gov.