Reservation for two

Bald eagles dubbed the 'Taku Twins' have become a welcome sight from the Juneau-Douglas bridge

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2007

Driven together by fate and food sources, one Juneau couple has stuck together through wind, rain and snow.

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At least that's the way it may appear to people crossing the Juneau-Douglas Bridge. If the eagles know the truth, they aren't telling.

In any case, two bald eagles have been perching atop the power poles alongside the bridge since at least the late '90s. Some call them the "Taku Twins."

Who are they, and what are they doing there?

Local experts say it's nearly impossible to tell for certain whether the "twins" are always same birds or stand-ins who take their place from time to time. Nor is it certain they're a mating pair.

"It probably is, I can't say for certain," said Mike Jacobson, a wildlife biologist and eagle expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"I think it is the same eagles that tend to show up and use the pole, but there could be others from time to time."

Unless an eagle has a transmitter, tag, or natural identifying characteristic such as a limp or missing talon, most eagles look pretty much the same to the untrained eye, said Scott Gende, an ecologist with the National Park Service who has studied Juneau-area eagles.

Still, bird experts say chances are the twins are a longtime fixture, particularly considering eagles' territorial tendencies.

"Usually eagles don't tolerate each other very well as far as perching together," said Bob Armstrong, an experienced Juneau birder and author of several bird guides. "I suspect that it is a pair that is on the perch over the bridge."

A landmark and a name

Like many Juneau residents, Pat Costello often sees them during his daily commute from Douglas Island to his downtown job in the state payroll office.

"The intriguing thing is that they are a sort of landmark, something to look at when you are crossing the bridge."

Costello is also a photographer who, until last year, maintained a popular Web site on which he posted a daily Juneau image. The eagles' photo on the site always elicited response - particularly a photo he posted one Valentine's Day titled "Love Birds."

"They are definitely what I consider to be part of Juneau," he said.

He's just one who calls them the "Taku Twins," a name he heard from somebody else - who probably heard it from somebody else. Taku Twins was also the name of the old movie theater once located close to bridge toward Juneau.

The raptors themselves are almost as mysterious as the origin of their nickname.

Surviving the extremes

Jacobson said the bald eagles favor their power-pole perches unless extremely high winds drive them elsewhere.

"If they are on the power poles, they can't really handle the high winds. They kind of lean into them so they are aerodynamic, but when it is really stormy blowing, they are not up there," Jacobson said.

The eagles often go to the lee side of the bridge when high winds come. Eagles are well equipped to withstand Alaska's weather extremes, however.

"They are really well-insulated," Gende said. "They have a really large body size so they can thermo-regulate easier."

They also are likely to roost in nearby trees at night for warmth and protection. But the power pole perches are enticing for several reasons.

"They like to be up high and they feel secure up there," Jacobson said. "It gives them a great vantage point to look for food, so they probably focus quite a bit on Cowee Creek right there."

They sometimes catch fish out of the channel or use other bird species as lookouts for schools of fish - a key part of their diet.

Did you know?

Facts about bald eagles

• Males and females are identical, but females are slightly larger. They have a wing span of up to 7.5 feet and weigh between eight and 14 pounds.

• In captivity, they have lived more 40 years, but in the wild, the oldest known banding record shows a lifespan of 29 years.

• There are roughly 25,000 eagles in Southeast Alaska.

• The raptor is named the "bald" eagle for its conspicuous white head and tail, but the distinctive white plumage is not attained until the age of five or older.

• The eagles often use and rebuild the same nest each year, but not every eagle is a breeding raptor, meaning they do not necessarily have a nest every year.

• In Southeast Alaska, the eagles usually nest in old-growth timber along saltwater shorelines and mainland rivers. Nest building begins in April, and both the male and female gather nest material.

• When the young hatch, sibling rivalry is common, and the weaker, usually the younger, chick is killed or starved. The surviving young leave the nest after about 75 days.

SOURCES: U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Mike Jacobson, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

They are also scavengers, eyeing boat harbors and channel-side houses for treats.

Despite the sightings of nests nearby, the pair are not necessarily what Jacobson calls "breeding birds," or birds who nest every year. He said he has also seen a third eagle perched there as well as immature raptors. On very rare occasions, he has seen a crow.

Bald eagles are not migratory in the traditional sense, Gende said. They do not migrate with the seasons; many stay during the winter months. Some might fly north or south for salmon runs, however.

"They can actually go a number of days without getting food," Gende said.

Whether the raptors mate for life - a common assertion - is still uncertain.

"If you look at a lot of the popular articles about eagles, that is what it says, but it is not that definitive really," Jacobson said. "They have the long-term bonds, but they split up too. They change partners from time to time."

Public outcry

In 1998, the Taku Twins made news. An uproar resulted after Alaska Electric Light and Power replaced the previous wooden power poles with new ones.

"For years eagles had always used the old traditional wooden poles, and then when they replaced them, the eagles disappeared. There was nowhere to perch," Jacobson said.

"I actually started hearing complaints from people," he said. "They enjoyed seeing the eagles next to the bridge."

Tim McLeod, now general manager of the power company, said one woman complained that the bridge was the one reliable place in Juneau she could take out-of-town guests to see the nation's national bird.

No perches were initially installed with the new poles because of safety concerns - both for the power system and for the eagles, McLeod said.

One stream of excrement can cause a city power outage, McLeod said. Outages occurred several times in the mid-90s, and it took a while to figure out the problem, he said.

Once the complaints started coming in, however, the company was encouraged by wildlife biologists to find a way for the eagles to perch in safety.

Various measures were adopted under a Raptor Management Plan, said Gayle Wood, office manager for the power firm.

The deterrents can be somewhat quirky pieces of engineering. Wood described one structure as "kind of a swirly kind of piece that goes over the line and makes it easier to recognize that there is a line there."

There are also flashers and triangles and spikes - all designed to keep the raptors from thinking power lines are a good place to perch.

Building the perches

McLeod built the current perches, a tricky task that required fulfilling some strict specifications.

First, he had to make structures that could be fastened using bolts already in place, to avoid interfering with the power supply. Then he had to figure out what the perch should look like.

"It is a metal perch with a wooden two-by-four between them," he said.

Biologists told him he needed to install them so the eagles could land in the wind - this is why one perch is turned at a 90-degree angle from the other.

Then McLeod had to determine a safe location.

"The perches sit right between the conductors so there was at least 11 feet horizontally between (the eagle) and the conductor below him. I felt like that was a safe distance," he said.

"They would have to shoot a pretty long stream out there to cause any kind of a flash."

An excrement stream hitting the conductors would likely cause an outage on Douglas Island, he said. Since they were installed, there has yet to be a mishap.

They are the only eagle perches in the company's system.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Jacobson said it took roughly six months for the eagles to discover the new perches.

"So time went by, the perches looked pretty good, but no eagles. It took a while for eagles to kind of figure them out. I didn't have the first sighting until about six months later, in early March '99."

Other Juneau pairs

The eagle population in Southeast Alaska is roughly 25,000, according to the most recent surveys. That's half of all eagles in the entire state, Jacobson said. The population has stabilized in recent years as humans have become more accommodating.

Birder Armstrong knows of several other local pairs. One couple is home on Juneau International Airport property, and two others hang out near the Mendenhall Wetlands. Another two have been spotted on the hill behind McDonald's in the Mendenhall Valley.

Juneau is a prime location for eagle viewing, with one of the highest densities of the species in the world.

"I think a lot of people take them for granted around here," Gende said. "They are just a dime a dozen. We could go to the dump and see 150 of them right now."

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.



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