Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bald Eagles

My grandfather and I were walking along the shores of Lake Michigan in the late 1960’s when Grandpa pointed into the air and exclaimed excitedly, “A bald eagle!  I haven’t seen one of those around here for years!”

It was a rare sighting, and I was as thrilled as the old man. I had never seen a bald eagle in the wild. Grandpa went on to explain how, when he was young, bald eagles were commonplace. By the 1960’s bald eagles were teetering on the brink of extinction in areas where populations had historically been high. 
Alarm over the possible loss of our national symbol prompted a concerted effort to save the bird. The precipitous decline in the population was, by the time Grandpa and I saw that eagle, linked to the use of the pesticide DDT. The use of DDT was banned (along with other protective measures), and the recovery of the bald eagle population has become an unparalleled conservation success story.

Over half of the world’s bald eagles live in Alaska. Seeing a bald eagle is often a highlight for visitors to Alaska. Words such as magnificent, inspiring, majestic, regal and thrilling escape their mouths as they gape awe-struck.

Those words, in all likelihood, never escaped Benjamin Franklin’s lips in reference to the bird. When the bald eagle was adopted as the national symbol in 1782, Ben had this to say:  I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character…  too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish… the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him....”

I would have to agree with Dr. Franklin. Bald eagles, while attractive to the eye, are no better than buzzards with an exceptionally good public relations firm.

Ben wasn’t one to identify a problem without offering a solution:  “For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America…”

While I certainly can’t say so with any authority on the subject, I suspect the turkey lost out primarily on culinary grounds. My guess is that nobody really wanted to eat the national symbol on Thanksgiving, or Christmas. Good heavens! What would the French have said, let alone the British? It would have simply been, for want of a better term, tasteless. Such a social conundrum would have necessitated finding a substitute for the main course on the fourth Thursday of every November, although one pops immediately to mind.

“Honey! When you’re shopping for Thanksgiving dinner, don’t forget to get an eagle.  I prefer the Butter-bald brand.”

To substantiate old Ben’s estimation of the bald eagle, I offer a couple of true stories.

In terms of “bad moral character,” the bald eagle is less than tactful. A friend of mine was once on the Homer Spit when an eagle swooped down and snatched a small dog (some kind of pocket-poodle, or other yappy micro-breed) out from under its mistress’s watch.  That was bad enough, but the eagle didn’t bother to fly off with it.  It went back to its perch atop a light pole and began devouring the dog in front of its nearly apoplectic owner. Adding to the unpleasantness was the fact the dog was not dead, and apparently protested loudly for quite some time.

My wife went to work one morning a few years ago, and one of her co-workers commented on a bald eagle that swooped very close in front of her car on the way to work. With bald eagles being common in the area, her comment elicited nothing more than a few bored comments such as, “So? That’s happened to me lots of times.” Her reply indicated her experience had been truly different. “Yeah, but I’ll bet none of those eagles were carrying a cat.”

As far as being lazy, bald eagles take it to an art form. My wife and I were fishing from the bank at the mouth of a local river one April. For company, there was another fisherman about twenty yards from us, and a bald eagle sitting on a buoy out in the river. While we chatted with the other fisherman, the eagle left its perch, landed on the beach and very slowly crept toward our bait bucket. The bird kept his eye on us while stealthily sneaking up on the bucket. Whenever we would glance in the bird’s direction, it would crouch lower and turn its head away. Watching it out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bird resume its quest for our herring as soon as it thought we weren’t looking.
“Watch that sombitch,” the other fisherman warned us, “he cleaned me out yesterday while I wasn’t looking.”

Yes, with just a few ravens, those are all bald eagles.

So, where is the best place to go and see bald eagles? It’s a frequent question from visitors.  My answer is always the same:  the local landfill, or dump. In fact, all but one of the pictures in this post were taken at the dump, this morning (you can guess which one). Hey, easy pickings beat chasing a “fishing-hawk,” or wrestling with cats.

Maybe it should be "Landfill and Aviary"

Kids, do not do this to a bald eagle on Thanksgiving!


  1. Could have fooled me! I thought they were rare and majestic. But then, they're not so common here in Washington.

  2. Too funny, Dad. :) I really didn't know the eagles had gotten that bad at the dump. Sheesh.

  3. I took a number of photos of bald eagles perched in scenic spots when we first moved to Alaska. When I realized that I could drive to the dump and watch great numbers of them scavenge, I stopped photographing them. Still, there's nothing like seeing one gliding through the air. They are truly magnificent when airborne and are not carrying small animals.