03 August, 2011

No eagles to spare

I come from New England, where the largest bird you typically see is a seagull, which can hardly be called a bird. In fact, we used to refer to them as "rats with wings" because they're noisy, vile, and a generally aggressive nuisance.

When I ventured outside my tiny bubble, I discovered that there were some amazing birds of prey out and about everywhere in the country. Notably, sightings of hawks is commonplace, especially when driving on the interstate highways. It is always mesmerizing to look up and see those giant wings circling and watching the ground for some small movement. Hard to believe that relevant stimuli could be detected from hundreds of feet above the ground. One of the many ways (besides the obvious capacity for flight) that birds are amazing in ways that we simply can't comprehend.

But it was only when I came to Seattle that I encountered the Bald Eagle.

Weird that the symbol for our nation is something that can only be seen if one is lucky. Why isn't our national bird the pigeon, or the sparrow or, even better, the crow?

But it was in Seattle that I first saw an eagle. And under the strangest of circumstances (to me at the time). One day, in the Maple Leaf neighborhood, there was a giant ruckus outside. Crows were going insane, squawking and flying everywhere. I had no idea what could be the reason for their madness. Then I saw it. They were chasing a giant bird, a bald eagle, that looked as if it were 3-4 times as large as any of them (and the crow is not exactly a small bird). They were chasing it, and it was fleeing, but not really fleeing in fear. It was sort of just flying about, impervious to them. I was later told that the eagle was likely trying to raid the crows' nests. What was happening was a collective effort by the crows to essentially "harass" the eagle until it became not worth its while to keep trying. It was an amazing sight to see.

For a long time, that was the only time I'd ever witnessed an eagle.

Then, one day, driving along SR520, a necessary but rather miserable excuse for a "highway" that we have in the Seattle area, I look up, and I see a bald eagle just sitting there atop a highway streetlight. Immense. Awe-inspiring. I don't know how it didn't cause daily wrecks, with people rubber-necking to see this breathtaking animal.

I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime observation. But it turned out, it was not. Time and time again, I would see the eagle, perched on the same post. This was part of its territory. This was clearly one of the places that he wanted to be. And it felt neat to think that a completely man-made object, a streetlight, had become a lookout point for one of the most awesome predators on our planet.

Just last week, I was crossing the bridge, and I saw him eating some sort of kill up there. Maybe a rodent. Maybe a fish. Maybe a small bird. Who knows?

And that's the last time we'll ever see him.

This week, the eagle was struck and killed by a vehicle at that very same location. It had swooped down to the road to get at some roadkill that was ripe for the picking. And it was hit. And it died.

From the article, I learned that the eagle was part of a nesting pair that had been living at a nearby golf course. All I can think about is that eagles are scarce enough that, if you lose half the nesting pair, there isn't going to be another male to come along and take up the vacancy. So the death of the male is tantamount to the death of the breeding pair. And who knows if the young they had stand a chance of thriving to replace their parents?

Just like that, the metal machines that we love so much bring us one step closer to eradicating completely irreplaceable pieces of our natural world.

It's tempting to level all kinds of hatred at the imagined driver of whatever vehicle committed the act... "I'll bet they didn't even slow down" or "I'm sure it was probably some giant, ridiculous SUV" or "They probably don't even care that they hit 'a bird'"... but the reality is, it was almost certainly a horrible accident. And the person whose vehicle hit the eagle probably had no chance of stopping. And they probably feel utterly miserable.

There are just too many of us, and too much of our toys and machinery, to avoid these inevitable erasures.

The Bald Eagle is a few ticks closer to extinction on the evolutionary clock. And it was the saddest news I've heard in a long, long time.