To Feed or Not to Feed Eagles
Thursday, January 22 2009 @ 10:17 PM EST
Contributed by: davidh
To Feed or Not To Feed Eagles? A Review
Many conservation organizations and governments not just support feeding wildlife but depend upon the funds raised from selling bird food or the taxes generated. Feeding wild birds is big business. It is also a practical business. Undoubtedly the only way our degraded city or urban habitats, with their natural grasses, shrubs and trees replaced by roads, houses and gardens, can house any wildlife, and particularly birds, is for humans to replace some of the items we have destroyed. The artificial garden plants don't always produce the same seeds, pollens or insects that feed our native birds.
The human supplemental feeding of these birds with bought seeds, suet and honey-water etc. provides many native species with the key items destroyed and missing in the urban environment -- the food items that were removed by human development. Of course some feeders also attract sharp-shinned and coopers hawks, merlins and peregrine falcons, assisting other elements in the food chain indirectly.
That feeding wildlife is a generally accepted principle and ..........
...... practical assistance to wild birds does not mean that supplemental feeding does not have downsides. These negative issues are certainly of concern and will be addressed later but they are relatively minor compared to the benefits. In the big picture, the destructive nature of humans, their total or even partial disruption of native bird or general habitats can and should be supported by our attempts to hold and then bring back species by effectively recreating suitable habitat. There seems universal agreement here.
Some conservationists, particularly the scientific community and the government agencies they represent have "had to" learn the "double-speak" of politicians and lawyers. They have had to advocate for the extreme position because we have never learned how to enforce laws cloaked in the reasonableness of "its ok here, but not there" approach that must govern nature. Laws don't seem to cover this approach. For laws to be effective they seem to require black and white interpretations. You either can do it or you can't do it – always and not just ‘sometimes’. Laws don't work well if you have to qualify and debate values and results on each pertinent issue. But natural systems are complex, interrelated systems that at specific levels don't effectively respond to yes or no applicable for bureaucrats. Natural systems demand commonsense.
It is the humans who always try and abuse the spirit or intent of the law, to gain some specific personal advantage, who cause the abuse. So we are left with the government policies, and sometimes laws, that cover the administrators' backsides, give them some legal grounds if abuse is being perpetrated; but, under other commonsense circumstances are simply ignored. You simply can't ask somebody who must support the rigidity of rules that support law, to now discuss reason and exception. It is not feasible. This is not administrative commonsense. They cannot speak of reason. They must speak of 'right or wrong'. You know their answer before you ask the question. So be careful of whom you ask the question. Don't put them on the spot.
This whole issue of feeding or not feeding eagles is all about this incongruous "double-speak" system of rules, come laws. I accept that. Yes, please buy food to feed wildlife; yes we derive revenue for our organizations and even for our governments from these sales; yes this is likely the only way to keep many species of birds in existence, let alone get a new hold on marginal but improving habitat; but "no you shouldn't feed wildlife." !
The real issue is don't ask certain people -- the ones paid to write the rules, the question unless you want to hear the double-speak answer. It is as simple as that.
This is not criticizing the government biologist or spokespersons. These are the rules they are forced to work under. I have never known a conservationist or biologist who would not help wildlife, from planting a native shrub, to supply food to their birdfeeder, to removing a roadkill farther from the traffic so the second and third scavenger is not also killed.
Every -- well make that almost every -- conservationist out there is trying to improve wildlife habitat: to preserve the small existing natural habitats from further destruction, and is trying to improve the vast majority of the world's landscape already disrupted or totally destroyed by people, their roads, the houses and industry and particularly their farms. Planting native grasses, shrubs and trees in our gardens and parks is a great start. Supplementing the lost old growth nest holes with nest boxes or suitable nesting tree structures or ledges on buildings is all wonderfully helpful. Putting out the variety of seeds, suets and nectars supports the wild birds finding more essential elements of their habitat -- the food component. All this is good and acceptable -- ok -- with some cautions that we will discuss later! This is the commonsense position, not the 'double-speak' position required to support laws.
So how do we get into this 'inflamed discussion, this righteous indignation, this emotional "I care more than you" standoff when it comes to discussing feeding wildlife. Well obviously it is because we care about nature, we care about our backyard birds, we care about our eagles. Most of us have come to this forum with little background on eagles -- or wildlife. Marvelous! That is the very reason for the existence of this Cam site!. The CAMs give insite into the marvelous and confusing ways of wildlife and hopefully invite discussion. Our site is then doing its job. Some people have taken strong positions for or against something. It is great you care. I love it.
Some people keep looking for more information -- that is even better. Some people will have had experience with backyard feeders, with watching wild birds at natural sites, some even will have had the experience of seeing several hundred or even thousands of eagles gather at salmon streams or other natural disasters where their 100,000's of years of evolution of scavenging tells them to 'come get this free but temporary dinner'. Some in their search have found the positions of authorities, the 'double-speak' extreme positions required for enforcing laws and have not understood the practical needs and applications of encouraging animals to survive and re-occupy old habitats. The 'double-speak" is there so laws can be enforced when abuses take place. At the practical level commonsense must prevail. Those are not words that can or should come from authorities but these are the words that govern concern for living creatures.
Some Eagle Background:
Bald eagles are one of nature's great protein recyclers. They can fly hundreds of miles a day to find a free dinner. And because they are the masters of reading the intentional movements of other eagles, it is not long before the first bird's "find" is being honed in on by five more, then 20 more and maybe within minutes, 100 more eagles are bee-lining to that same spot. The bald eagle is not just a major scavenger but an effective bully always prepared to steal food from the lesser neighbor, at least until she / he is satisfied. At that satiation point the food is always turned over to the next bully.
So what has all this 'natural behavior' got to do with our bald eagles and the impact of some supplemental feeding? Well everything. First, and lets talk about the southern British Columbia coast because this is the geography and its biological timing that we are specifically dealing with. Up until 1953 Alaska offered a bounty on bald eagles and over 111,000 pairs of bald eagle feet were turned in for payment. It is estimated that 7-10 eagles were likely shot for each one retrieved and the bounty paid, so this would probably account for over 1,000,000 eagles being shot over a 20 year period. An incredible impact!
Some Personal History:
When I started my eagle work in the mid 1950's we had lots of eagles both wintering and nesting in the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia. These are the islands separated from the San Juan Islands of Washington State by the twisting. meandering Canada/US border. At that time I had 96 nesting pairs of eagles in the Canadian group of these islands. In aerial surveys of the entire Washington coastline. from the Canadian border south to Seattle. and around all the San Juan Islands (I had to avoid flying too close to some military bases!) in between, I did not find a single active nesting pair of bald eagles. There were still lots of unused nests but no nesting birds that I found. Conclusion: between the Alaska fisherman who largely lived out the winter in these milder coastal Washington villages, and the general North American attitude at that time, the attitude was that all predators were "vermin" and were despised competitors with humans and should be shot. The Washington eagles suffered enormously. Not that Canadians were more "conscientious about our natural resources" -- we weren't. But I suspect the Alaska bounty simply propelled a financial return and a reinforcement of how evil eagles were. Every hunting magazine of the day then showed ads for guns, scopes or ammunition with a hawk, eagle or ground squirrel in the 'cross-hairs' to reinforce how bad these creatures were. Predators until the mid-1960's were evil and competitive and existed to be killed. Like most advertising, be it to support violence, greed or good, the repetition works. The Washingtonites did a fine job by the standard of the day. They literally eliminated the bald eagle, their own National Emblem, from its main coastal habitat.
By the early 1960's the attitude was beginning to shift. Many bird species were found to be disappearing. Rachael Carson drew the world's attention to the link between our pesticide poisoning of the entire continent and the disappearance of song birds and raptors. Our 'human conscience' was pricked. Somehow in this picture of devastation, particularly through the story of the disappearance of the spectacular peregrine falcon and the United States National Emblem, the bald eagle, we began to evolve an awareness that predators had an important role to play in our shared world. Predators became not competitors, they became indicator species on how well we were treating the entire world. And we weren't doing well.
The Eagles Comeback:
During my own personal studies of the 1960's, I had over 1000 British Columbia bald eagle nests under observation with my aerial, boat and ground surveys, I was also able to assess something that did not seem significant at the time. Because I did my graduate studies at UBC in Vancouver I frequently extended my aerial surveys to include the Fraser Valley and surroundings of the Greater Vancouver region. It was interesting that I could only find in that entire area three nesting pairs of bald eagles. One in Stanley Park in downtown Vancouver, one across the harbor in West Vancouver's Lighthouse Park and another pair on the Indian Reservation at Dollarton in North Vancouver. I found none in the farmland of the Fraser River Valley. It was accepted. Eagles and people didn't co-exist.
Today I have over 250 pairs of bald eagles nesting in this same Great Vancouver – Fraser Valley area. These are the nests I have located, and there are probably another 200 pairs I have yet to locate. An incredible difference. An incredible adaptive acceptance by bald eagles of our urban and city environment. How this all happened is both marvelous but so simple. We humans changed our attitudes. We quit shooting eagles. We did little else. We began to actually honor their existence. They responded.
Sure, in later years we have started to try and preserve the few big trees that will support the huge eagle nests but most big trees are already gone. Our eagles are so eager to occupy our city and urban areas they will even nest on human-made structures; cellphone towers and the high tension power towers.. The favored hunting perches have become the telephone pole or industrial cranes, and in parks it is often a totem pole, or around the harbours, the boat masts. I have active nests that are only 37 feet above ground level in driveways. In many parks one can count the number of runners, baby strollers, dogs and playing kids in the hundreds per hour that go directly under the nests -- not 60 feet away, not 40 feet away -- directly under the nest. I recently was criticized for calling Vancouver the Urban Bald Eagle Capital of the World. Juneau, the Capital city of Alaska (the place where all the Alaska eagle bounties were paid from back in the 1950's!!!) -- the city's PR director called to challenge my statement. They think they now have more breeding eagles than Vancouver. What a wonderful turnaround. What an attitude shift. But as much as I love Juneau and Alaska, it's just not true. Sorry, Juneau -- Vancouver holds the record!
The bald eagle when given a chance adapts well to the urban setting. They quickly learn how to hunt the roads, the farmlands and ditches and the beaches. As a scavenger they are particularly adept at living in our "rubbish filled" environment. They pick up road kills. The cities are ripe each morning with dead rats, cats, rabbits and each day brings forth numerous runover squirrels and mallards. In the spring mallards are killed by the thousands – particularly the males who stand guard on roadways while their hens forage in nearby ditches. Cars runover dozens per day in each region of the Fraser Valley.
Of course Greater Vancouver is blessed with productive ocean frontage, it is bisected by the Fraser River delta, an untold number of small ditches each with salmon, muskrats and waterfowl. The big downside for our eagles is that we don't have enough big trees to support their huge nests. But they try and, as I stated, have moved into artificial structures. I predict that shortly they will be, like the peregrine falcons, nesting on the bridges and buildings. They are slowly taking back that which was theirs. Marvelous.
Well of course some people don't like "this taking back". This involves other adjustments. And of course we don't really understand what all these adjustments will entail. A big adaptable scavenger/predator moving back into an area must have some impact. But what? It is easy to see that the eagles picking up the rats, dead rabbits and squirrels is pretty positive all around. The downside of this is that these carcasses are not available for the urban coyotes and street dogs and rat fodder.. But maybe that is not so negative! So they now share the cities waste.. Picking up dead ducks is also generally a plus. But what about the live ducks and goslings taken? Nobody would deny we have a lot. The government has for years gone out annually and "shaken" Canada goose eggs by the thousand so they will not hatch. Some people still think we have too many geese and ducks, particularly on the golf fairways. It is also interesting that almost every golf course has an eagle's nest! Of course, the golf courses have the nest trees.
There is another relationship on the horizon that may shift. What is the present great blue heron population or perhaps more importantly, what was it before Europeans exploited this area? There is occasional evidence that eagles can and will predate heron nests. They will eat the young herons. How natural is this and how will this effect the heron populations? Most certainly herons are another incredibly beautiful and abundant species that share our city and urban areas. Not every Koi or goldfish pond owner likes the herons but generally they are a magnificent contribution to our area and the same patchwork of ditches and streamlets that supports eagles, supports herons. I have had both herons and eagles 'work' my large fish pond. But guess who I favor?
The conflict between eagles and herons is not clear. As stated we have recorded incidents of eagles taking juvenile herons out of the nests. But the largest heron colony near to Vancouver, with about 200 pairs of herons, have their nests quite tightly concentrated around an active bald eagle's nest. That pair of eagles does not appear to kill herons. Another startling observation occurred two years ago. The eagle's nest blew down in a storm and the new eagle nest was located about 150 meters farther west along the ridge of trees supporting the heronry. The herons then repositioned the centre of their heronry around this new eagle nest location, abandoning the heron nests farther east and now farthest from the new eagle nest. Did the herons move to be near the eagle nest? That is certainly the result. Will this repositioning of the heron nests closer to the eagle nest result in more young herons being raised? Or more being eaten? Time, and a present graduate student, may answer that interesting question.
It is my theory that these herons have recognized that this breeding pair of eagles does not bother them but rather, because of the eagles' territorial defense of their own territory against other passing eagles, becomes the defender of the heron nests. And the herons recognize this. Incredible. This same mechanism works with Siberian Red-breasted Geese. They primarily and most successfully nest near gyr falcon eyries. The gyr drives off encroaching foxes preserving both the gyr eggs and the geese eggs.
So back to feeding bald eagles. Good or bad? Probably a poorly worded question. Is it justified to ever offer food to a wild bald eagle. Most certainly yes. Could it be negative? Probably yes. So like most circumstances of real life we have to evaluate the individual situation. In the perfect world, where no humans were selectively destroying some habitats and creating others, nature would do all the adjusting. Species would survive or die out depending on their adaptive abilities. We impose an incredible unbalanced selective pressure. At times we can show compassion and understanding. At times we can help restore or tip the scale in another direction -- another direction to destruction.
Lets look at a few of the traditional yeses or the positive things we can do. In the 1960's I made a film showing a young chap at Bella Bella, a fishing village up the BC coast feeding bald eagles. Daily Sonny Dickson threw out meat scraps from his cannery butchershop on the dock to the waiting eagles. Now this was probably 1966, barely at the time of our societal shift from considering all predators as vermin to viewing predators being a desired parts of the ecosystem. The prevailing fisherman attitude in these wilderness areas was still "a predator that eats salmon is bad". It was the likes of Sonny and his totally unplanned efforts, efforts motivated by his interest in watching these birds' spectacular aerial maneuvers, that were and still are the roots of conservation.
The eagles were not yet protected as Sonny threw out the fish. Daily fisherman gathered to just watch this spectacle. Many a US fisherman passed those docks, stopping for gas and food, going to and from the Alaska ports, but no eagle around Bella Bella would dare be shot. Sonny, single handed had changed the region's attitude. Finding within each of us something that sparks an interest or concern, that is conservation. The simple act of feeding these birds gave opportunity to pleasure and wonderment. Killing these magnificent predators was no longer the option.
Historically, and that covers 15,000 to 8,000 years ago, at every native village along the coast where it is believed over a million natives lived off the sea, daily the frames, guts and heads of excess salmon, cod or halibut would be thrown or offered back to the sea. The beach or the sea was the garbage dump. Bald eagles from these early times have mutually benefitted from being fed from humans and I can see no negative effects on these eagle populations. The First Nations people honored and revered the bald eagle, their spiritual connection with their ancestors.
From the 1960's till today I have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fisherman throw out an unwanted 'course' species of fish or the scraps and watch as an eagle came to pick up the offering. What a thrill each has experienced. I have heard the story over and over. It is the story of imbedded interest, of initiating a spark of personal involvement, of sewing the seeds of commitment to nature. The diving of the eagle from a nearby tree, the great extended yellow talons reaching out and striking the fish and swish, it is off. These simple little acts, seeing the eagle at close range, marveling at the bird's aptitude, this is the triggering mechanism for the beginning of appreciation of nature. Are these acts of feeding eagles wrong? Not at all. These are the acts of involvement, commitment and conversion. Have they somehow unwittingly deterred the eagle from maintaining its wild abilities. Obviously not at all. We have had 10,000 years experiment, probably the greatest and longest experiment ever: Does feeding bald eagles make them less adaptive or successful? Obviously not!
Can a government PR person say feeding an eagle is right? From recent comments, apparently not But that does not make it less right or even less desirable to feed the eagles. "Double-speak" speaks! My obligation is to see that “Double-speak” does not inhibit our eagles success.
Concerns of Feeding:
I have promised to talk about the negative side of feeding eagles or other wildlife. Like the above discussion, the published papers or opinions largely come from which side of the "double-speak" argument you come from. But there is at least one serious concern. And a few other concerns that are more theoretical I suspect than real. The often quoted concern that I don't give much credence to is worrying that eagles might lose their natural instincts to forage. Are we likely to handicap an eagle from competing successfully? Obviously not – the 10,000 year experiment on our coast Native Americans attests to that.
The negative behavior modification of a long-lived highly mobile scavenger/predator like the bald eagle is really quite unlikely quickly changed. They will readily move several hundred miles in a day in pursuit of food. If the fish run of a river lasts 3 months they will likely stay and feed for 3 months. If all the fish are washed away, as happened in 2007-8 winter along our southern BC coast, so that the run is gone in the first month, then the eagles have to go elsewhere. And it appears that many did. Just that.
Did the local garbage dumps offer an alternative. It seems some did. Did some of the eagles move farther away in pursuit of other food sources? It surely seems that many did. One of our CAM observers usually had 3 to 5 eagles visit her reservoir in Kansas each of the past several years. This year 300 eagles showed up. It sure would have been nice to have had some of those eagles wearing satellite transmitters so we knew where they came from?
They performed as eagles have for hundreds of thousands of years. When the food supply dried up, or in this case washed out to sea, they simply extended their search. Would those few eagles that stayed in local human garbage dumps learn a wrong message? Perhaps, but the few that stayed were a small group of the whole population compared to that which left or went elsewhere. It may be that this variant was positive and not negative to the eagle population.
Note: a 2008-09 update: This past fall turned up some very negative observations. Many of the British Columbia southern rivers had record small salmon returns. What happened to these fish is still not certain. Some facts have been turning up. At the Squamish river system, where the Brackendale-Squamish Bald Eagle Festival, the Festival that has had the largest NA counts, this 2008-09 fall had the lowest numbers of eagles in attendance. The Squamish River system had earlier suffered a disastrous train derailment in which many tank cars of poisons were dumped into the rivers killing the salmon and trout. This same 2008-09 fall saw the Chehalis–Harrison River complex, the home of the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival, show record numbers of eagles. We previously had around 1500 show up for our festival or just after it, but this year we counted over 2500 eagles. And yesterday, January 19, 2009, I did my eagle surveys around Boundary Bay and the Delta Refuse Dump and found record numbers of eagles. The dump count was 781 eagles, up considerably from a previous 9 year high of 640 eagles.
These changes can indeed foretell of ominous disasterous losses in our salmon runs that would surely have great negative impact on the NW bald eagle populations. In the short term however, what these changes in numbers point out is that our eagles are adaptable. They can and do move over considerable distances and very quickly to take advantages of local food – a good salmon run or a garbage dump.
Was the garbage dump negative to the eagles future? Possibly the food content of the Vancouver dump was more contaminated than wild food but I personally doubt that. Some other recent evidence, just released this past week (Jan/09), gave evidence that the last couple of years decline in Orcas in southern BC and Washington, has now been attributed to spring salmon losses. More importantly, these salmon are now shown to be heavily loaded with PCM’s and other pesticides. So if the wild salmon are that contaminated can the human waste dumps be much different. I doubt. The ominous forecast from this salmon-Orca story is that if these predators are suffering from the total contamination of the Pacific Ocean, will our bald eagles not be exhibiting the same losses. Most certainly they are eating from the same table.
On the other hand we do know that farm-raised salmon is often reported to be about 4 times more contaminated than wild salmon so the potential contamination from eating human food is not good. On the other hand the wild salmon are all now so contaminated that a steady diet of these carcasses is probably even worse. I personally gave up eating fish from the Pacific Ocean in 1983 when 26 species in California were all described as “too toxic for human consumption” – that was 1983 - and our oceans are only getting worse.
Another item: An interesting law was recently passed in Alaska, yes the same Alaska that 50 years ago was offering a bounty on eagles. They are saying that people will not be allowed to feed eagles or some variant of this. The law was absolutely aimed at the feeding of eagles by one lady, Jean Keen, at Homer, Alaska spit. She has fed the birds for years. She indeed has a following of eagles and eagle supporters.
One neighbor, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist who has a game farm nearby with open pens of waterfowl, did not like his ducks being caught by the eagles that he believes she attracts.. He got support from some of his cronies and had this law passed so Jean could not attract the eagles -- and presumably his ducks will benefit. Well the law backfired. By popular demand they had to put in an exception to the law, that Jean Keen could keep feeding her eagles. The jury of peers thought the law unjust. Of course, the biologists supporting the law that one "shouldn't feed wildlife", remember the "double-speak", well, they managed to leave their law in place and exclude Jean from it. Is that “double-double-speak”? Sometimes the politics of conservation and defending "double-speak" are more difficult to fathom or cope with than just getting people interested and concerned with the existence of the world's species.
Another possible problem is that the artificial gatherings of wildlife can bring about unnatural opportunities for predation. Or at least one argument is that ‘artificially fed populations” are therefore unnatural. But concentrations of wildlife at waterholes, natural disasters or due to climatic fluctuations are also quite natural. That a coopers hawk or merlin makes a score at a bird feeder can be quite disturbing to some bird feeders but it is a ‘natural response’ by the predator to a high temporal concentration of prey -- a very natural response. And the prey learn what to do or the raptor also gets fed picking off the less weary or fit prey.
I have always been astounded by bald eagles. They can be so aggressive in establishing a territory but when 300 pounds of seal washes up on the beach below the nest, this great food source will be gorged on by dozens of resident and transient eagles. Extra food, if temporarily abundant, is regularly shared by passer bys! Why fight over a food supply that will possibly be gone on the next high tide. The conflict of intra-species aggression is the other half of the selection process.
The Big Danger of Wildlife Feeding:
The big danger of wildlife feeding is probably related to a common wildlife/human problem. When one gets crowds one gets easier transmission of disease, be that between people, wildebeests on the Serengeti or eagles at a salmon stream or in the local dump.
The backyard birdfeeder could be a place where disease transmits more readily from one bird to another. Of course many species do naturally congregate in groups so aggregations are not uncommon. Scavengers, like the eagle of course, do have built-in resistance greater than most species to resist disease as their life is spent digging though dead and diseased carcasses. That is their role.
However, a single example of what can go wrong with artificial feeding, is very pertinent. In most areas of the world, and the Fraser Valley is no exception, the main protein food for humans is poultry. All these chickens are raised in huge barns, best thought of as virus incubators -- a place in which disease organisms can breed and multiply and test both their lethalness and their transmissibility.. These chicken or pig barns will likely be the source of the impending "avian and pig" viruses that will spread to people and ultimately kill hundreds of millions of people. The question is not "will this happen" but "when will it happen".
Why on earth do we allow these virus incubators in the proximity of people or on the world's greatest wild bird migratory path, the Fraser Valley Flyway? Insanity and greed. I say it is greed by the farmers and paid off politicians and insanity by us who allow it. The farms regularly dump the manure and dead carcasses onto the nearby fields where the gathering of starling, crows, gulls and eagles feast. Of course if these carcasses are contaminated with a deadly virus from those barns, then these farmers have now spread their disease to the wild flocks, to their neighbors, to you. And we allow it. We are a greedy species and so self destructive and stupid. We deserve the impending pandemic!
I am told the US requires the chicken farmers to decompose all this manure and rotting dead chickens (in some areas) in enclosed decomposing sheds. These are closed so that no wild birds enter and no diseases escape. The heat from the decomposition kills any virus. Why do we in Canada not demand this? I suppose we have to kill a few more hundreds or thousands of people and 100's of thousands of local flocks of pet and domestic birds before we address this issue properly!! We had the warning three years ago when nearly 300,000 pets and domestic birds in the Fraser Valley were slaughtered to protect this dangerous industry and appease the US government so our chicken farmers could continue to export our chickens to the US. And we have done nothing to exclude these farms from the Fraser Valley.
So how good for eagles is feeding bald eagles. I think it makes up for a small part of their food supply that we have already taken from them.
Happy eagle watching.