Flight of the Eagle

Not the Swedish film, but the release of female bald eagle #15-1667.

Almost two hundred people gathered at York River State Park for the arrival of the veterinary director from the Wildlife Center in Waynesboro. He was returning a V.I.B. to her home in the Coastal Plain of Virginia. Two months earlier, a park ranger found her lying sodden on the ground and unable to fly. After passing through the care of a licensed “rehabber,” she was passed to the Center for a physical exam, X-rays, blood tests, and rehabilitation.

Her vital signs and tests were negative apart from slight bruising, and no one was the wiser about what had brought the bird down. It took time to recover strength for an independent life again. That time had come.

The vet held on firmly with thick gloves around her neck and legs as he lifted the great bird out of a box in the back of his wagon. We were told to line-up in two rows about 20 yards apart, like guests at Buckingham Palace come to gawk at the Queen passing regally down the middle. The public is forbidden to touch the Monarch; the same for the eagle.

Bald eagles are common again, but never regarded as two-a-penny. You can guarantee to see them in most places along the York and James Rivers, and there are two nests on Jamestown Island where visitors have a grandstand view if they lift their heads for a minute from gazing into the archeological pit. Along with ospreys, eagles have plenty of sport diving for fish close to the shore.

poem_Tennyson

Vet with eagle-smallThe bird struggled in the vet’s arms, her wild nature still looking untamed. Fortunately. She cracked open her hooked beak and flailed the ebony talons on her long legs, as yellow as egg yolk. I expected to hear an aquiline snarl, but she was all gesture and scowled silently. When white feathers were raised on her head I thought she looked fierce, but a bystander said, perhaps more sympathetically, it was anxiety. Is there always a difference?

We couldn’t see the tiny GPS transmitter strapped to her back because it was hidden by feathers. The bird joins dozens of other avian soarers carrying transmitters that send tracking signals to ornithologists. The data show where, when and how high they fly in this region thick with domestic and military airports and flight paths.

The vet prepared us for the launch. One…two…three, and then he tossed her in the air. Without hesitation, her wings opened and undercarriage dangled as she started flapping magisterially down the flight path prepared between us, gaining height, never looking back until a turn into the forest left us standing on the green.

Eagle take off-small

Next Post: Virginia Nature Journal for August

Scavengers

Charles Dickens
Gaffer Hexam and Lizzie fishing for corpses on the Thames.
Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend. Clarendon edition, 1864

“Half savage as the man showed, with no covering on his matted head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow on his shoulder, with the loose knot of a looser kerchief lying low on his bare breast in a wilderness of beard and whisker, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made out of the mud that begrimed his boat, still there was business-like usage in his steady gaze” (Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend).

Scavengers get a bad rap. In Dicken’s story, Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie made a living from scavenging corpses floating in the Thames. They rummaged pockets for valuables before giving the bodies up to the authorities. But one day he found a body with papers identifying it as John Harmon, a missing man, and Gaffer was accused of his murder. Living in squalor and in thickets of thieves, scavengers soon fall under suspicion of crime.

In Tudor England a skawager was a customs collector (a more honorable occupation today, although it still causes sinking feelings in a traveler waved to their desk). Over time, the word scavenger emerged as the name for any kind of street cleaner. In removing waste and carrion they performed useful services, although it was not realized until mid-Victorian times that they were helping to safeguard the public from epidemic diseases.

I remember scavengers when I was growing up in London. Those so-called “totters” were easily recognized with their horse and cart and hand bells or from their ringing voices,

“Rags and bones! Rags and bones!” We didn’t have much household waste in the 1950s

because post-war austerity still held a vice-grip on domestic budgets. Most of our stuff was collected by “dustmen” (garbage collectors), but some choice items were saved for the rag-and-bone man, like the remains of the Sunday roast joint which we were told would be rendered by some miracle into glue or soap. Children liked to stroke the horse stamping outside their homes while the man loaded his cart, but their parents often called them indoors until the ragamuffin went away.

In the BBC sitcom, Steptoe and Son (1962-74), Harold and his irascible father Albert are in the business together, although not in any other sense together. Harold aspired to a better life, deriding Albert as “a dirty old man,” but his pretensions to middle class respectability in a rag-and-bone yard always let him down, especially with women. We laughed at the show from the comfort of our living room, and the comedy crossed the Atlantic to become Sanford and Son. It is harder for the Millennial Generation to understand the rag-and-bone trade because, after four centuries of keeping our streets cleaner and freer of disease, it had almost vanished by 1980. Its last representative in London, Alf Masterson, died in 2007.

Animal scavengers don’t enjoy any better reputation than rag-and-bone men. Hyenas, raccoons, rats, flies, dung beetles, et cetera are all regarded as vermin. And although birds are more generally loved than most other animals, vultures are regarded with particular loathing.

Riding the thermals, vultures are aerial marvels that catch the slightest uplift even on cold days; and to watch a condor hanging over the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is a memory to savor long after the vacation. In the eastern and southern USA turkey vultures and black vultures patrol the countryside from several hundred feet scouting for carrion

turkey vulture
Turkey vulture.
Courtesy: Virginia Master Naturalists

with their sharp eyes, although it is often the turkey vulture’s exceptional sense of smell that catches the first savory whiff of a meal. Where it dives its brethren quickly follow. Black vultures are the more sociable of the two species, but both are intelligent like that other carrion-eating family, the crows, but vultures are more reviled. The sight of a venue (the collective noun for a vulture gathering) around a carcass with their naked heads bobbing in and out of the gore looks revolting, although we don’t have the same reaction to the look-alike heads of wild turkeys. Baldness makes hygienic sense for this kind of diner, and it also helps to control body temperature in hot sun. Despite a scuzzy appearance, they are finicky about preening because their lives depend on their plumage.

black vulture swiping windshield blade
Black vulture – windshield wiper swiper.
Courtesy: Virginia Master Naturalists

These “buzzards” have become more common since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) which protects them from casual shooting, and they have spread north of the Mason-Dixon Line to breed in Canada. Perhaps they are responding to global warming, but certainly to food supplies.

According to the National Highway Traffic Administration the numbers of white-tailed deer have increased from half a million in 1900 to perhaps 15-20 million today, and many of them stalk suburban gardens and public parks close to roads. Every year 1.5 million vehicular accidents with deer are reported, which cause 150 human fatalities on average, 10,000

dumpster
vulture feeding station

injuries, and a billion dollars in costs. Vultures have often cleaned the road-kill before a highway maintenance crew arrives to dispose of the carcass. They are not always so welcome, particularly at landfills and around dumpsters backing onto schools and shopping centers, but they always provide services gratis.

Vultures in India and Pakistan are not faring so well, and some are in crisis. Populations have crashed by 98% from consuming carcasses of livestock treated with the anti-inflammatory diclofenac. Despite bans on the veterinary drug, their numbers have not bounced back and the costs of losing these scavengers are tragic and still being counted. Carrion often carries disease organisms normally destroyed in the guts of vultures but which survive passage through feral dogs and rats, which become carriers and spread rabies, anthrax, brucellosis, plague, and dangerous strains of E. coli. Bites from these animals are now even more serious, and carcasses left to rot contaminate water supplies, adding to human misery and fatalities. The Parsi (Zoroastrians) mourn the vultures that used to consume their dead relatives in funeral rites, and we should grieve the loss for many reasons.

The habits of vultures have barred them from ever becoming symbols of a nation, although the American bald eagle is a part-time scavenger. Sometimes an eagle can be seen crouching over road-kill, and even in vulture company. Benjamin Franklin was unhappy when the bald eagle was chosen for the Great Seal of the USA, and in 1784 wrote his daughter Sally:

Ben Franklin
Benjamin Franklin on $100 bill

“For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly…too lazy to fish for himself… (but) the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and…though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

If the ways of bald eagles made them ill-suited to be national symbols the British lion is also a national embarrassment. But many top predators—lions, tigers, white sharks, and even piranhas—will take carrion given an opportunity. And our prehistoric ancestors probably had few qualms about carving left-over flesh from beasts that were preyed on by other animals, which brings me back to our species as the top waste-maker and recycler.

Adam Minter, the son of a Minneapolis scrap dealer, describes how the humble rag-and-bone trade has evolved into a vast and hugely profitable industry (Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade). Canny businessmen have always known that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In Our Mutual Friend, the corpse that Gaffer Hexam recovered from the murky Thames was misidentified as John Harmon, the heir to a fortune made by his estranged father from collecting garbage from London streets. That reminds me of a sage saying I often heard in Yorkshire, “Where there’s muck there’s brass (money).”

Thanks to friends at the Virginia Master Naturalists (Historic Rivers Chapter) for permission to reproduce images.

Next Post: Lovely Lilah

The Return of the Native

Blogger_at-workApologies to anyone who recently visited my blogs posted between January and March 2013 and found the pictures were missing. This was a widespread problem affecting WordPress bloggers, but the images have now been reloaded.

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A large black-and-white bird flying above our yard towards the James River caught my eye last week. It was no “buzzard.” A bald eagle is still uncommon enough to be arresting, and perhaps there is even a patriotic American somewhere who stands to attention when he sees his national emblem soaring past, like Air Force One. But there is a grander reason for saluting the bird—it is a native that has returned home.

Eagles were a common sight in the Chesapeake Bay watershed until catastrophes in the 1950s and ‘60s. In those decades, an industrial plant was disgorging poisons into the James River. The chemical waste was Kepone, an insecticide related to DDT, which so polluted the river that a Virginia Governor prohibited consumption of fish for a 100 mile stretch. But no respecters of law, eagles kept fishing. Not only did they accumulate poison from eating fish but also lead from the scattered gunshot of duck hunters. Hardly a single chick could be brooded in those days. Those woes were aggravated by the loss of nest sites to waterfront developments, and the failure of naïve birds to navigate around traffic and power lines. It seemed as if the 1940 Act of Congress intended to protect the species had been written on disappearing ink.

bald-eagle
Photo: Don Snyder

Forty years ago you would have been lucky to have seen a single eagle along the James; fewer than thirty pairs nested across the entire state. But after the poisons were banned by the EPA in 1972 river health slowly improved, which encouraged the US Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a program for reintroducing eagles. It is perhaps the greatest American conservation story for a single species. Nest sites are monitored annually by fly-overs in light aircraft, and at the last count there were over 700 breeding pairs in the state, allowing the species to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act. So the bird depicted on the escutcheon of the Great Seal of the United States can now be seen even within Washington DC itself, and that is something that even congressmen who put business before conservation should be proud of! 

On that eagle day, my mind was pulled away from its absorbing interest to thoughts that had no obvious connection.  I found myself thinking about Clym Yeobright in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. When an image comes out of the blue like that I often strain to find a meaning for the unexpected distraction. I suppose there was something inside me trying to fathom a metaphor for what I had just seen.

Thomas_Hardy_novel
Clym Yeobright and his wife Eustacia in The Return of the Native

In the novel, Clym returned to his birthplace on Egdon Heath after making his fortune in Paris. It had been hard growing up on the Heath, but he believed it would be easier now to flourish in the bosom of land that had nurtured his ancestors, where old neighbors would celebrate his return and he could settle down to productive work with a wife and family.

Perhaps the novel came to mind because I was uneasy remembering how things turned out for the returning native and deep down was wondering about the fortunes of eagles back in their homeland. But unlike Clym, who needed no help moving to the Heath, bringing species back often needs our helping hands, the very hands that originally extirpated them. The job of preserving species seems unfathomably difficult to me, and is yet so immensely important for preserving the web of life and a healthy planet, which some call Gaia. But since human populations are continuing to migrate from rural origins to urban communities it is easy to forget our dependence on biodiversity. Connections between sources of our food, clothing, medicines, and raw materials for manufacturing and building on the one hand and living things “out there” on the other are under-rated or taken for granted. Without beloved companion animals inner city dwellers might even forget that we share the planet with other creatures. And when we do think of human ecology we find it overwhelming and hope that someone else is working on it.

The United Nations has designated our times as a Decade of Biodiversity. It is an admirable attempt to draw global attention to environmental sickness, even if the politicians themselves are soon distracted by the latest humanitarian disaster (caring for the one species instead of for all). Unfortunately, no one I asked had ever heard about this splendid declaration—nor had I before preparing this post—but the responsibility for preserving biodiversity really should fall on our shoulders, and the efforts of government, NGOs, researchers, and citizen scientists need our support.

Since zoos, wildlife parks, and technology can only go so far towards preserving species, rare animals and plants must eventually be reintroduced to their old habitats. The international organization that reports population status and coordinates reintroduction programs is the IUCN. It publishes the famous Red List of species that are threatened or endangered, including those that are extinct. A Threatened species is one that is vulnerable to stepping down the list to Endangered, the dire category which used to include bald eagles. Searching the List for threatened species is quite sobering because it includes 41% of all amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of corals, 31% of sharks and rays, 25% of mammals, and 13% of birds around the world. Diners are relieved that most types of lobster are safe, at least for now (1%).

When humans become urbanized the disconnection with nature makes it harder to notice or even care about year-on-year changes in the natural environment or that a formerly abundant species has now grown scarce. Like the drip-drip of a retreating glacier, it is only by observing over a period of time that you notice how far it has retreated up the mountain. At least that is how I rationalize the gap between my impression that songbirds are as common as ever in my backyard and the fact that national bird counts reveal alarming trends over my lifetime.

It is a sad reflection on the character of Homo economus that both the UN and conservationists feel it is necessary to appeal to our self-interest to encourage conservation-mindedness. One of their favorite examples is the Amazon jungle, for which preservation is sought for the cornucopia of potentially valuable products and medical remedies for ourselves. Perhaps we would feel more concerned if we lived five times longer than our four score years, since we would then have to face a more impoverished landscape in our own lifetime. But for me the moral argument is so much more powerful: that if we live more gently with nature we can avoid the curse of posterity for grandstanding and being grand executioners during the sixth great extinction on earth. This is the only extinction we cannot blame on geology or asteroids.

If the resources available for research and conservation were stretched thinly enough to cover most threatened species nothing could be achieved, so hard choices have been made. Those getting most attention are well-loved or iconic species, and many of them sit at the top of the food chain, like eagles. Golden lion tamarins (Brazil), Siberian tigers (Asia), black-footed ferrets (Great Plains), and gray wolves (Yellowstone National Park) have been successfully reintroduced, and the publicity helps to prime the pump for funding other projects. But what about more lowly species that are nevertheless important for supporting those above them in the chain? Who is going to help half-a-million species of beetles?  The physiologist J.B.S. Haldane pointed out that God must have had “an inordinate fondness” for them, so surely they deserve some attention?

I have a particular fondness for the red kite story because forty years ago I drove with student friends to Tregaron Bog in mid-Wales to see the last survivors in Britain. Before persecution they thrived throughout the country where they provided equivalent services to vultures in other countries. We only had a fleeting glimpse of two rusty-colored raptors with forked tails as they flew over the wetland, but this was enough to tick them on our checklists, as crazy birders do, before turning for the long journey home. We anticipated their imminent extinction, but some years later healthy birds were brought over from Europe to found a thriving population now numbering about 2,000 pairs. The bird has been seen again in London and hunts the countryside of Hardy’s Wessex novels.

Yet behind these sweet stories eternal vigilance is needed as the price of biodiversity, to twist an expression often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Habitats are not static, human pressures come and go and come again, and the globe continues to warm, encouraging competitive alien species, melting ice shelves under polar bears, et cetera. Besides, not everyone welcomes the natives home. Developers grumble that people should have a greater call on waterfront properties than eagles, ranchers in Wyoming and Idaho keep their guns handy watching for wolves, and an English student even complained that a red kite had swooped down for his sandwich! Restoring species to their habitats is patient work, and never ending.

That brings me back to Thomas Hardy who, as a Victorian, was lucky not to live in such anxious times. Life didn’t turn out well for Clym, the returning native. He never settled down happily and found himself at odds with residents and married a belle who became dissatisfied after he fell into poverty, working as a laborer cutting furze on the cruel Heath.

I always hope that after suffering trials sympathetic characters in the novels I read will be rewarded with a contented and harmonious life, but that never happens in the Hardy world where fate trumps hope. The author may have called himself a realist, but pessimism is an unattractive demeanor that curbs endeavor and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wish it had been Jane Austen who had come to mind on my eagle day because Jane-AustenDarcy returned to Longbourne to marry Elizabeth Bennet and they lived happily ever after, and that is the metaphor I wish for all returning natives.

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