An Uncommon Conundrum

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Illustration by Kelsey Dake

For our bird-centric and conservation-focused readers especially, this is a rich one:

When the National Bird Is a Burden

Bald eagles have been the emblem of the United States for more than two centuries. Now, in some parts of the country, they’re a nuisance.

By

The bald eagle, a bird that lives only in North America, is sometimes mistaken for an idea. Take the Great Seal of the United States: The eagle clutches an olive branch in one claw, a set of 13 arrows in the other. His wings stretch out tall and wide from behind a shield, and his fulsome beak holds a ribbon inscribed with Latin: “E pluribus unum.” That is a collage of symbols about peace and war and history and unity, not a bird. A real bald eagle is made of flesh and feathers and talons — a thing of nature, not a pastiche of concepts. Noble virtues do not map neatly onto apex predators, a fact that troubled Benjamin Franklin as early as 1784. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote: “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly.”

But the first time Will Harris saw a bald eagle on his farm, six years ago, Franklin’s lesson was one he had not yet learned. Harris, the owner and patriarch of White Oak Pastures, a thriving family farm in Bluffton, Ga., is a stocky, stubborn, fourth-generation cattleman who shades his bald head with a sweat-stained hat. Just the sound of his South Georgia drawl can move a herd of half-ton heifers, so how much trouble could a 10-pound bird be? Besides, he sort of liked them.

They came to Bluffton, a small agricultural town in the southwestern corner of the state, one or two at a time. To the bare eye, they might have been any other raptor, any bird of prey. Maybe even just vultures. One day in 2011, Harris picked a pair of binoculars off the dash in his Jeep and pointed his gaze toward the sky. Sure enough, perched in the high branches of a loblolly pine was that unmistakable silhouette: wings broad as shoulders, beak pointed like a curved dagger, crest as white as milk. This was a bald eagle looking down on his farm.

Harris knew why the eagles had come. The previous year, he bought his first chickens, a small flock of 500, just to figure out if he could learn to raise them. It turned out he could, so he bought more birds: thousands of chickens, but also turkeys, ducks, geese and guinea hens. Those birds moved about his acres, pecking and scratching through the pastures, fertilizing the grass his cows would graze, perching in the low branches of his trees. From the high vantage of pines and oaks, the raptors looked down at their chubby, flightless prey. The bald eagles had come to eat.

Harris was initially pleased by this development. Top predators have long played an important role in nature. Wolves and cougars once put pressure on bison to keep moving over long ranges of land, and he says, “There was never overgrazing because the predators were behind the animals pushing them on, giving the land naturally a chance to rest.” Harris mimics that cycle of rotation and rest in his own pastures, and he believed that the bald eagles might be similarly beneficial. Predators often take the easiest prey available, weeding slow or sick animals from a flock. The eagles became his cleanup crew. When people asked about the situation, he had a little sales pitch: “You’ll never get a sick chicken from White Oak Pastures, because a bald eagle will get it first.”

That was back when Harris had only a few eagles. They kept coming. The numbers seemed to double every year. Half a dozen eagles, a dozen, two dozen. By late 2015, when the leaves had fallen from the trees and the northern migration had arrived south, bald eagles hung on the branches of Harris’s trees like Christmas ornaments. Counting eagles on the farm became a local sport. The record that year was almost 80 at one time.

Wildlife photographers were welcomed out to take pictures. In one image, three juvenile eagles are sparring in flight, their talons bared, their wings stretched, the head of a dead chicken floating in the air among them. By this time, Harris had realized he had a problem. The eagles were killing thousands of his chickens. How many exactly? That was unclear. He knew he needed to stop it, but what do you do about a bald-eagle infestation? Nobody in Bluffton had ever heard of such a thing.

Harris is an idealist, the kind of all-natural farmer whose cows finish on grass, whose birds run free, whose goats and sheep transform overgrown land. His faith in biodiverse, sustainable methods has only been affirmed by his multimillion-dollar annual revenues. And not that he would, but shooting a bald eagle is punishable by a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. Whatever was to be done about the eagles, Harris’s farm would work with nature, not fight against it. But as he would discover, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

“Now, you know John Muir said: In nature, when you pull a string, you see that everything’s connected?” Harris lamented to me later. “This is a good example of that.”

Harris is hardly the first farmer to have a bald-eagle problem. In various newspaper accounts from around the turn of the 20th century, you can find our national bird making “great depredations upon chickens and ducks,” poultry farmers “at their wits’ ends” and “pigs, calves, goats and lambs … killed in large numbers by the birds.” In 1917, bald eagles were considered such a scourge in Alaska that the government sponsored a bounty of 50 cents a bird, later increasing it to a dollar; this led to more than 120,000 confirmed kills. An unsigned editorial in the state’s Douglas Island News in 1920 explained: “Sentimentally, [the bald eagle] is a beautiful thing, but in life it is a destroyer of food and should be and is killed wherever found.” The author added that while lions are the emblem of England, they “are not met walking along the Strand in London.”

By the 1970s, though, there was an entirely different bald-eagle problem: In the lower 48, all but a few hundred were presumed dead, killed off not by trigger-happy farmers but by DDT. The chemical wasn’t designed to kill eagles, of course. DDT was once a celebrated innovation, a miracle compound that could fix farms and save lives. When Paul Müller was given a Nobel Prize in 1948 for discovering the chemical’s ability to kill insects, a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences described Müller as a “benefactor of mankind” and compared him to St. Francis of Assisi — a great lover of nature, often depicted with a bird perched peacefully in his hands.

From its postwar headquarters in Georgia, the Communicable Disease Center (later to become the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) dispersed DDT millions of times throughout the Southeast, effectively eliminating malaria in the United States. Farmers found plenty of use for it, too. Clouds of horn flies were wiped clean from cattle herds. Apple orchards were purged of the codling moth. These insecticidal triumphs, we now know, had unintended consequences. Rain and irrigation carried DDT from fields into creeks, rivers, deltas, bays. Snails and bivalves, the filter feeders that hug the murky bottom, absorbed the chemical before being consumed by fish. Those small fish would be eaten by bigger and bigger fish until a bald eagle swooped down from above, plucking its dinner from the water.

As DDT climbed each rung of this ladder, the chemical accumulated exponentially, a process known as biomagnification. Bald eagles and other top avian predators were getting the largest, most concentrated dose of any animal in the food chain. The chemical didn’t necessarily kill the birds that consumed it, but it had the odd effect of making their eggshells thinner — so thin, in fact, that they would break when an eagle sat down to incubate her young.

The destruction wrought by DDT helped start the environmental movement. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, passed the year after DDT was banned, extended protection to animals including the bald eagle and provided crucial funding for their management and recovery. In this way, the bald eagle came to embody another kind of idea, becoming a symbol for the plight of endangered species, a poster animal for the havoc wrought by industrial chemicals, a victim of our flawed, unnatural ways.

Starting in 1979, eaglets bred in captivity were released from the top of a man-made tower on Sapelo Island in Georgia. In this artificial nest, enclosed by bars, the young birds were fed for several weeks by staff members careful not to reveal their human presence. Once the birds were sufficiently feathered, the bars were opened, allowing the adolescent eagles to decide when they were ready to leave. This program, known as eagle hacking, expanded to two other locations in the state and continued through 1995. Though many factors contributed, the most recent census, conducted by helicopter, identified 201 successful eagle nests in Georgia…

Read the whole article here.

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