One afternoon last week, David Hancock, a biologist, author, and publisher, pulled off the highway to talk to me on his cell phone while making his bald eagle rounds in the Fraser Valley, outside of Vancouver, B.C. He’s been studying birds of prey there, near his home, for 50 years, and this day was no exception, except it’s not so easy to get from A to B, to check your nests, when you’re being bombarded with eagle questions from across the country (and I wasn’t the only one). But Hancock jumped into this year’s story with such enthusiasm you’d never know he’d told it before. This is precisely what I’ve come to expect of those who have made a life of birds of prey.
Fraser Valley is a biological wonder, Hancock enthused, a bird idyll, especially for bald eagles. Big runs of salmon lure eagles down from the north as the coast “freezes up,” and by early December, one or two thousand birds are usually on hand for the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival, which Hancock helps organize. This year, however, more than 7,200 birds gathered within a two-mile area on the Chehalis River, a tributary to the mighty Fraser River—a number even Hancock could hardly believe. Quite a lot of black and white had come to feast on chum salmon.
But the chum never ran. Within 10 days, that huge congregation dwindled to just 348 birds. And that’s when it hit Hancock: “Joyous” as it was to see 7,000 eagles in one spot, it presaged the worst. It suggested an ecosystemic failure. So many eagles had pinned their hopes on the Chehalis, because the chum run—which, in terms of mass, Hancock says, is the largest of any of five salmon species that run along the Pacific Coast—was more or less a bust everywhere this year. Not only that, but the carcasses of the few salmon that had successfully died—that is, spawned—had been washed away by heavy rains. Wasted, in the eyes of an eagle.
“It’s a bit of tragedy,” Hancock says. Later in December, he counted over 1,300 eagles one day at the Vancouver landfill—another impressive sight, but one stinking of desperation. Hancock has studied eagles at the landfill for eight years, but he’s seen only 400 or 500 at a time, and usually just 30 or 40. This year, unable to rely on the aftermath of a huge salmon run—one of nature’s most marvelous, messiest dumps—the eagles had turned to our version.
“The real severe problem,” Hancock says, “is that first- and second-year birds don’t know how to catch a thing. They are totally dependent on finding something dead, or stealing some peregrine’s duck.” Those juveniles have been hit hardest, and more than the usual number of eagles have turned up in BC rehabilitation centers this year. “They’re just so weak, they end up landing on the ground, with no strength. Those are generally never seen. They walk under and hide under vegetation, and quietly die. But so many are dying this year, the public is seeing some of this.” If eagles scavenge at dumps, they also risk being poisoned by what we’ve thrown away.
Sounds dire, doesn’t it, but Hancock has kept his sense of humor. He’s seen eagles at many highs and lows, and his devotion to them has apparently remained the same. It all began when, at age 11, he caught his first hawk and became a falconer. At 15, he learned to fly and began surveying eagles by plane. The thesis he later wrote on eagles was sponsored by the Canadian Audubon Society. More recently, he authored a book called The Bald Eagle of Alaska, BC and Washington.
Humor does seem a crucial asset for those with long environmental careers. Of the landfill, Hancock says, “I can’t say that it looks like a good food source, but then I don’t go out and eat rotting salmon carcasses, either.” He’s quick to quip that the chemicals that have bioaccumulated in salmon tissue could be just about as tasty. As for why the chum run was poor this year? Could be overfishing. Salmon snack on herring, and they’ve both been rounded up excessively, too. But these things also just run in natural cycles (or in the case of fish, don’t some years). Bald eagles are plentiful in BC and Alaska, but when fish crash, they crash land as well. Right now they’re bumming around Vancouver, some in shelters, until the herring arrive, hopefully in a a few weeks. This stretch of time between the December chum and March herring is precisely when BC’s eagles are most vulnerable. If it’s rough, some fly far inland. Others stake out our garbage.
In any case, Hancock keeps a watchful eye on them.