It has been eight days since we last saw Dad Decorah – eight days of searching, observing, communicating, worrying, and shedding tears. Eight days of talking to our board, our volunteers, and our eagle panel, coordinating activities, planning for Dad’s loss or recovery, and thinking back on Bob and the wonderful educational and research adventure that he created. Eight days of desperately wishing that Dad would return and make the world of the Decorah Eagles right again. In the words of Sherri Elliott, Dad was a masterful architect, skilled hunter, proficient prey purveyor, loving and perfect partner, defender of all things that go bump in the night, and devoted Dad to 31 eaglets. And now we have to accept that we – and Mom – will have to go on without him.
We still don’t know why Dad is missing, although our panel of eagle experts suggested that a fight with the unidentified male eagle (UME) was the most likely reason for his disappearance. Given the high density of the surrounding eagle population and number of floaters, or non-breeding adults, intra-species fighting has become a major source of natural mortality for bald eagles. While the panel didn’t entirely reject hypothermia or illness, they felt it was not very likely given that Dad didn’t appear sick, didn’t have green mute stains on his tail, and had previously gone through bad weather, including wet April snow storms, with no problem. They also mentioned electrocution and car collisions as potential sources of mortality, and rejected the idea that Dad simply gave up and left. We found no evidence at all of Dad being shot or kidnapped.
People have been searching the Decorah area since Thursday, April 19 on foot, by car, and with regular and thermal-imaging drones. So why haven’t we been able to find Dad? It is possible that he was carried away by a scavenger or hid himself before succumbing to his injuries – a natural defense instinct to lay low and avoid predators. We’ve responded to many injured bald eagle reports and we’ve always found it amazing and frustrating to see how well they can hide in even very open landscapes. Given the sheer number of bald eagles, finding a dead or injured bald eagle is the exception, not the rule. In some ways, it seems fitting that we will never truly know what happened to him. Dad remained his very own self until the end.
RRP director John Howe pointed out yesterday that we are seeing something that is hard for us, but very normal in eagle life – and something that most people didn’t understand or know about until we started watching eagles in their nests. Death and the succession of eagles is part of the natural order, but that doesn’t make it any less sad when it happens. We watch the Decorah eagles and love them, but they belong to no one but themselves. Their lives are a gift we are privileged to share and learn from.
We extend a huge and heartfelt thanks to our board, our eagle experts, our volunteers, the Decorah Fire Department, and the people of Decorah for all their help, care, and concern during a difficult time. Another huge and heartfelt thanks to all of you who have joined us on this journey. Some of the most heartwarming questions and comments have come from our young student eagle followers and we extend a special thanks to them and to their teachers for the honest, open, and very touching discussions they have had about our eagle family. We have come to the end of the first chapter of the Decorah Eagle family, the story that began so many years ago with Bob Anderson, Neil Rettig, and American Eagle. But more stories remain to be told, and after all these years, much remains to be learned.
We will be holding a remembrance of Dad Decorah on our Facebook page on Wednesday, May 2nd. We will open the page that day so watchers can post memories, poems, stories, and artwork of our beloved Dad. In the meantime, we will be watching Mom and the eaglets. She has been doing a wonderful job of caring for and protecting her eaglets in Dad’s absence, and we wish for nothing but the best for all of them.
Chat will be closed on Thursday, May 3rd, to give our moderators a little time of their own.