The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird
STANDING AT THE ROCKY EDGE OF A STREAM, A BALD eagle scans its surroundings with luminous eyes. Satisfied, it unfurls its wings straight up, drops into a crouch, and, in one fluid motion, pushes skyward, sweeping its seven-foot wingspan out and down. The eagle rises, slowly at first, legs and feet hanging like pendants. Its powerful wings beat hard against the air, and it continues to rise. Limbs draw up for the journey ahead.
Nesting season has come to its inevitable end, and migration has begun. As fall slips toward winter, bald eagles across western Alaska have been called to a distant place, a place they pursue annually throughout their lifetimes—as did their ancestors in their lifetimes. Their autumnal exodus from seasonal territories proceeds not in a mass or in crowded waves. There are no herding calls sounded to a group, no flocks gathering for takeoff, no wedges of flight piercing the sky. Instead, each bird—even the young ones not long from the nest—follows its own impulse to leave, and over a period of weeks, thousands of eagles set out individually on a solitary journey duplicated by multitudes.
Seeking a southwesterly course, wind in their faces, sun on their backs, they eventually roll out over the Aleutian Islands. Each island in the trackless sea below is an ancient link in a migration route mapped in the eagles’ evolutionary memory. Tracing it from several hundred to several thousand feet up, they continue to fly solo, loosely spaced a half mile or more apart in streams twenty to thirty miles long, soaring on favorable winds where they exist and pumping wings providently where they don’t.
Each passing day grows stingier with light, granting barely six hours between the dim interludes of dawn and dusk. Well before sunset, the journeying birds descend to some remembered resting place en route. They fish for renourishment and then settle down in trees or on rock ledges for the night. The next morning, they fish again and then lift above the dewy haze one by one to push on. If the weather is clear, these daylight fliers will travel a hundred or more miles before another night of rest.
A favored stopover is the island of Amaknak, a four-day journey from their mainland territories, if they don’t linger. Amaknak is also the final destination and winter residence for many of the eagles. As it comes into sight, they wheel toward its green and rocky hills.
On descent, primary flight feathers splay and twist; tail feathers pitch upward and downward. Horizontal wings dance on fickle air currents. Heads dip forward, and keen eyes pick out landing spots as each nimble bird floats in. Legs reach down and toes spread to meet the upward-surging ground in a near balletic landing. Wings close as a final bow.
MIGRATING FROM ONE PART of Alaska to another doesn’t seem like much of a winter retreat, but bald eagles can tolerate cold weather. What they cannot abide is thick ice that prevents them from catching fish. The coastal waters around Amaknak don’t freeze solid—a fact well known to them. Not only are fish accessible, but so, too, are tens of thousands of wintering waterfowl, easily pluckable fare. If the winter prospects are plentiful a few hundred miles away, why should an eagle from the hyperborean climes of Alaska bother to fly as far south as Washington or Oregon or, as some mystifyingly do, all the way to New Mexico?
The migrators that arrive on Amaknak join hundreds of balds that reside there year-round. Food that is abundant in the winter is even more so in warmer months. On a map, the Aleutian chain looks like a trail of breadcrumbs that falls away from the mainland in a southwestward arc. The islands create an archipelago divide between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. The convergence of these two waters stimulates a gushing wellspring of marine life that draws to Amaknak some forty million spring- and summertime nesting seabirds—shearwaters, kittiwakes, fulmars, petrels, cormorants, and albatrosses. Balds nest alongside them.
At 3.3 square miles, Amaknak is one of the larger of the breadcrumbs. On its north side looking out to the Bering Sea is Iliuliuk Bay, which was once an undisturbed natural habitat of seals and sea otters and the pre-European home of Unangan, the indigenous people of the region. By the late eighteenth century, the island had become an outpost of Russian fur traders, who called the Natives “Aleut.” They also named the bay “Dutch Harbor,” yet there is no reliable evidence that the Dutch ever settled their namesake water. Perhaps the Russians first heard about Amaknak Island from Netherlander whalers or seal and sea lion hunters who would slip into the protected bay to trade with the Native peoples and take on fresh provisions or escape storm-ravaged seas.
Dutch Harbor is wrapped in the protective embrace of conical hills that range from a few hundred to more than a thousand feet in height. They are the kind of hills you might imagine on a volcanic island, which Amaknak is. Unpopulated by humans, they are treeless yet green with vegetation when not white with snow. In the summer the green spreads like a lush quilt embroidered with red salmonberries, purple orchids, yellow-green honeysuckles, and chocolate-brown chocolate lilies. Exposed rock in the hills adds shades of gray, brown, blackish brown, and rust.
There is plenty of rust of the iron oxide kind around the island too, where the air is perpetually wet and salty. Up in the hills, rust is found on the metal hardware of old gun batteries from World War II (the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor twice), but most of it is down around the harbor. It’s on trucks, cars, chain-link fences, and manhole covers. It’s rubbed to a burnish on handrails, door handles, and steel stair treads. It’s on loading cranes, shipping containers, and crab traps. It’s on the winches, booms, anchors, and bulkheads of fishing trawlers. It bleeds down the sides of their deckhouses and hulls.
For as long as Dutch Harbor has existed in name, it has been a commercial fishing port, and a phenomenally productive one at that. In 2005 the Discovery Channel began filming the reality television series Deadliest Catch at Dutch Harbor, following snow- and king-crab fishing boats and crews out into the cold and often turbulent Bering Sea. In 2020 the network’s most popular reality show filmed its sixteenth season, and Dutch Harbor finished the year as the top commercial fishing port in the United States for the twenty-fourth consecutive year.*
The bald eagles may be blind to the film cameras, but Dutch Harbor’s commercial success doesn’t elude them. The 700–800 million pounds of fish and shellfish hauled into port are another call to the eagles’ winter migration. Like pelicans and gulls, balds will eagerly take a free offering coming their way.
The green and rocky hills overlooking the bay make eminent perches for these fishing raptors, although not necessarily preferred ones. Wild though they may be, the eagles come down from the hills like upland villagers to the market, situating themselves amid the clutter of the island’s human population. When Deadliest Catch first arrived, their number hovered around six hundred to the human population’s roughly forty-five hundred. Today, hardly a rooftop, streetlamp, fence rail, or satellite dish has not been visited by one of these feathered fishers. Eagles even congregate at the historic Russian Orthodox church and wrap their toes and talons around the crosses atop its two steeples, positioning themselves closer to the higher power than the worshippers inside do. A most coveted high seat is a towering lattice-boom cargo crane used for loading and unloading the trawlers’ giant fishing nets. When the boom is idle, it is rare that the top end isn’t hosting a white-headed lookout. From this vertiginous pinnacle, an eagle can survey the activity on the fishing docks from one end of the island to the other. Like crows on a wire, they line up on the gunwales of trawlers and the gables of fish houses, baldly eyeing every catch. Dozens will wait and watch as boats offload cornucopias of the sea, looking for fish to spill or, perchance, a friendly crew member to toss one their way. Gangs of industrious eagles can be seen cleaning out remnants in drying fishing nets, undisturbed by boat crews. The net cleaning is the least of their brazen acts.
In the frost-heaved parking lot of the Safeway grocery, a dozen eagles once descended on a box of freshly caught pollock in the bed of a Nissan pickup. A local woman posted a video online of the impromptu jubilee. “What did you guys find in that truck?” she asks playfully as her smartphone camera zooms in, wholly ignored by the partakers. The video went viral. That one and others the woman posted began attracting nearly a million viewers a month on YouTube. Some of the most popular of these videos feature an eagle pair that regularly visited her front porch and competed with her territorial cat Gizmo for prime perching spots on the railing.
Bald eagles are so numerous and common that direct encounters with locals became inevitable. One once descended on a sixteen-year-old to pluck a slice of cheese pizza out of his hand. A pair with a nest at the post office regularly dive-bombed customers. If they were just about any other bird, they would likely have been banished for their mischief. But calling the eagles “Dutch Harbor pigeons” is about as far as locals come to decrying their presence.
Dutch Harborites more or less acknowledge the right of the wild birds to live beside them. Before the US Fish and Wildlife Service relocated the nest from the post office, customers cheerfully donned hardhats. The sixteen-year-old carried his scars from the pizza raptor proudly, and the owner of the Nissan pickup attributed his loss to carelessness. Fishers appreciated the net cleaning, and the cantankerous Gizmo sometimes surrendered his spot on the porch railing after trading stares with the feathered intruders.
Fifty and more years earlier, these ubiquitous avian residents in Dutch Harbor would have received a hostile reception. Commercial fishers viewed them not with a grin and a chuckle but with a grunt and a sneer. Proclaiming eagles as nuisance wildlife that were stealing fish and biting into profits, they shot, netted, and clubbed their supposed competition. Down in the lower forty-eight states, eagles endured the same punishments for similar purported crimes. It didn’t matter that this so-called nuisance bird was a symbol of America.
DESPITE THE HOSTILITY, THE bald eagle has been associated with higher principles and better attributes since 1782, when Congress made it the central figure on the Great Seal of the United States. Representing fidelity, self-reliance, strength, and courage, the founding bird quickly attained a vaunted perch in America’s iconography. Its visage appeared on the US capitol dome and pediments, hard and paper currency, business and sports-team logos, coat buttons and cuff links, and the 101st Airborne’s sleeve patch. It was a hood ornament, door knocker, money clip, and chest tattoo—the stuff of trinkets and gewgaws.
Yet no animal in American history, certainly no avian one, has to the same extreme been the simultaneous object of reverence and recrimination. For centuries, eagles risked their lives flying across American skies.
People familiar with the history of the bald eagle generally know that in the mid-twentieth century, DDT nearly eliminated the species in the contiguous US. Fewer know that before then the bald eagle’s existence was gravely threatened by something as equally toxic as that lethal chemical pesticide: myths, lies, and insensitivity. False accusations fostered a cross-eyed vision of a morally depraved predator and thief, and degenerate scavenger—a bird more corrupt than the pilfering garden crow. In the American mind, the species served no real benefit beyond presiding as the embodiment of the national emblem and other insignia.
We can attribute the deterioration of conditions in the late twentieth century to collateral damage from the reckless use of a pesticide. Earlier, however, depredation had been deliberate. For more than a century before DDT’s commercial introduction, Americans prosecuted a fierce coast-to-coast assault directly against their flagship bird. The aggression was nothing short of premeditated and acceptable—legally and socially. Anyone anywhere in the position to do so squeezed the trigger and carried out the bird’s execution—respectable, hardworking, churchgoing people who thought they were doing no more harm than pulling up an annoying dandelion.
Yet the bald eagle’s prominence as a cultural and commercial symbol was never greater. No fine calculus seemed to exist between myth and reality. This invented dichotomy was the wildlife counterpart to the culturally contrived noble and savage Indian and the happy darkie and black-beast rapist. Americans treasured the bald eagle’s image even as they detested its living complement. Reverence kept company with scorn. Respect with disrespect. Idolization with vilification. Immortality coincided with murder. Before Euramericans, when North America was still a land of indigenous peoples, the bird of freedom that would lose its freedom encountered no such stormy contradictions. It flew as freely as the wind.
Cresting in the second half of the nineteenth century, the violence perpetrated against bald eagles compared with the onslaught that the American bison and passenger pigeon suffered in the same era. The sagas of the latter two animals are well known, recounted in a passel of books written since the eleventh-hour rescue of the prairie-storming bovine and the extinction of the sky-darkening migrator. The account of the destructive malice that tormented the founding bird, by contrast, lies among the missing pages of a prescribed history.
The recorded memory of nations tends to be less comprehensive than selective, clotted with romanticism that obscures truth. Yet allowing the truth to die rather than preserving it can also silence the heroism in laudable acts. The good can be lost with the bad. In the case of bald eagles, history has failed to give the successful effort to stop the slaughter its fair due.1
Saving bald eagles from oppressive indignities and ultimate destruction is a story worth expanding on and celebrating. It’s a story with two parts that elevates shining moments in the American experience.
All this is to say that twice, not once, the United States nearly lost its flagship bird from the wild, and twice people aided its return. The first time, the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 sought to stop the century-long bloodshed and establish a peaceful accord between Americans and the persecuted species. Unfortunately, reconciliation quickly coincided with the emergence of another troubling conflict, brought on by the introduction of DDT for everyday use. The chemical pesticide was supposed to improve the quality of human life. Yet whatever social benefits DDT delivered, they were rapidly undermined by the damage to human and wildlife habitation, most noticeable in the genocidal blitz against wild bird populations.
For their own part in the rescue efforts, bald eagles managed to extricate themselves from past assaults and exhibit a will to carry on, a will that we might view in heroic terms. While policymakers and wildlife experts advanced an agenda for restoring the population of this imperiled species, the birds pursued an evolutionary instinct for self-preservation. Humans did not alone determine their destiny; bald eagles plotted out their own story as natural beings.
THE PAGES OF HISTORY you have in hand offer a comprehensive account of a singular avian species and its relationship with a nation and its people. The book’s nine chapters with vignettes—discrete introductory stories that precede each chapter and pivot the larger narrative—in essence constitute a biography of both the living bird and the symbol. Looking at the two as one reveals that the place of these hallmark birds in the American pantheon runs deeper than mere national icon and opens out to more than conflict and reconciliation. At the nation’s founding, bald eagles were only one defining element of the rarefied natural environment of North America, an environment that constituted the wellspring of an original national identity. Within a century after adoption of the Great Seal, restless Americans and new immigrants broke out across the continent and into the modern age of manufacturing and consumption. Inevitably, nature as resource eclipsed nature as cultural identity. America’s attachment to its organic foundation, a source of its exceptionalism among other nations, would soon be forgotten.
In the 1960s, a shift in consciousness rescued the country from the onset of unsparing ecological disaster. The incentive for change, manifested in the modern environmental movement and a spate of farsighted environmental laws, grew out of many factors, not least of which was the near complete disappearance of what was by then a beloved species. Its decimation and inspiring revival helped raise awareness of early connections made between American exceptionalism and nature. The charismatic bird became more than a patriotic totem. It evolved into a measure of how well Americans were advancing a healthier intercourse with nature, a place where people, not just wildlife, lived.
The Bald Eagle ultimately concerns itself with connections—humans to eagles specifically, and to nature generally—and how such connections weakened and strengthened throughout our history. The book is as much about values too, seemingly opposing ones—patriotism and environmentalism—yet in the American historical context they are complementary at their core. The bald eagle’s magnificence reflected values that Americans associated with themselves and their country. Letting the hallmark bird die out, ending the migration flights along the Aleutian Islands and across the lower forty-eight states, risked betrayal to the country’s national and natural heritage. Losing the species would have been tantamount to cowardice. Setting up the conditions that facilitated its revival was an act of courage, one that turned failure into triumph, and self-recrimination into virtue.
In few places, then, are patriotism and environmentalism so clearly complementary and connected as in the life history of Haliaeetus leucocephalus.
Introduction: Haliaeetus Leucocephalus: The Species
A BIRD FOR A NEW NATION
SEARCHING FOR A SEAL
TWOButtons and Coins
NATIONAL IDENTITY, NATIONAL EXPANSION, AND EVERYWHERE THE “MONARCH OF THE AIR”
THE BALD EAGLE IN EARLY SCIENCE, OR ORNITHOLOGISTS WITH GUNS
PREDATOR, SYMBOL, AND DIVINE MESSENGER
BIRD OF PARADOX
FIVEFeather Straight Up
NATIVE PEOPLES AND THE SPIRIT BIRD
NEW SCIENCE AND NEW ATTITUDES
PULLING BACK FROM EXTINCTION—THE FIRST TIME
SEVENBirds in a Band
POISON RAIN, BLESSED RELIEF
PERSISTENCE AND RESTORATION
NINEBird on Top
NEW CENTURY, NEW AGE
About the Author
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|Epub||March 30, 2022|