National symbol a local irritant in Alaska

Raptors get a bad rap in Juneau, where bald eagles are everywhere

Posted: Monday, September 22, 2008

Like an avian Rodney Dangerfield, the bald eagle often finds little respect in America's Last Frontier.

Alaskans regularly refer to the national bird as the "state pigeon," an overly abundant scavenger and common fish thief. Once, hunters even shot them for money: Alaska paid approximately 100,000 bald eagle bounties between 1917 and 1953.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the details of a proposed permit program that would allow some "activities that may disturb eagles, require nest removal, or otherwise result in the death of or injury to a bird." Simply put, if a permitted property owner accidentally killed a bald eagle, through the process of trying to get them off their land, the resident would not be held liable for disturbing the protected bird.

Such news was welcomed in Juneau, the region with more bald eagles than any other in the United States, and where eagle permits could help developers.

Of course, not all Alaskans view bald eagles as mere impediments to progress. Volunteers with the Juneau Raptor Center, which provides medical care to sick and injured birds, sound like many Lower 48 residents when they describe the birds, often seen perched in the area's Douglas firs.

"They're common, but I never get tired of them," said Pat Bock.

"I love 'em, but they're thought of as nuisance bird," added Jaimie Rountree. "What did Ben say: 'A bird of low moral character'?"

Rountree was referring to Benjamin Franklin, who unsuccessfully pressed Congress to make the turkey, not the bald eagle, America's national bird. (Franklin's take on the eagle was actually harsher than Rountree remembered. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin labeled the bird of "bad moral character," a species that "does not get his living honestly," "too lazy to fish for himself" and "generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward.")

Three bald eagles received treatment on a recent night in the Raptor Center's makeshift medical clinic, set up in the basement of Rountree's father's house. The first patient was Mr. Peepers, so named because he was found near a boathouse owned by an ophthalmologist. He is unable to fly because of an abscess on his wing.

As Rountree readied to clean the wound, Bock threw a blanket over Mr. Peepers and held him tightly, as the bird grunted like an annoyed pig.

She and Bock lanced the wound, cleaned it and then put Mr. Peepers in a large dog crate. The next two bald eagles were Wrangle Baby and one so critically ill the volunteers don't want to name it, fearing any hope futile. The juvenile eagle, which had flown into a parked truck, barely opened its eyes and did not struggle when held.

"He's not in a coma, but out of it big time," Bock said, as Rountree gave pain medication and fluids.

The fact that the young eagle could soon die troubled the two volunteers, but they had seen it before at the Raptor Center, an organization funded fully by donations. Rountree said that those days when they can release rehabilitated eagles make all their work - like the daily dicing of salmon head - worthwhile.

"I still see them as majestic," she said. "Even if they are everywhere."



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