Dozens of bald eagles descended on a dump truck hauling fish guts at a Kodiak processing plant Friday and got tangled in the mess, leaving at least 20 of the birds drowned, buried or crushed, according to federal wildlife officials.
About 50 eagles were watching and waiting for a meal outside the Ocean Beauty Seafoods plant when the uncovered dump truck pulled out of a garage, said wildlife biologist Brandon Saito, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Once the birds began landing to gorge themselves, their massive numbers pushed others down into the sludge, which was about the consistency of quicksand, Saito said. Factory workers, who had apparently moved the truck out only for a few minutes, pulled it back inside when they saw what was happening.
"It's not a very big space for that many eagles to get into," Saito said. "Some of the birds got crushed and buried. Some were drowning in the slime. It was really heavy, thick stuff."
Temperatures in Kodiak on Friday afternoon were in the midteens, causing some of the soaked eagles to "flash freeze" when they were pulled free, Saito said.
Several workers shoveled through the mess to pull birds out as the dump truck incrementally released loads of the guts onto the garage floor, Saito said. As the birds were rescued, they were taken to a "triage" room, where employes of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge washed them off in large tubs of soapy warm water and evaluated them, he said.
"We cleaned them up and tried to warm them up, but some of them weren't doing too good," he said.
The eagles were exhausted from struggling to escape the goo, Saito said. Many were hypothermic from being submerged in the cold water.
Thirty surviving eagles were taken to refuge headquarters, where they were being kept indoors in tarp-covered truck beds because there were not enough kennels to house all of them, he said.
Saito said he expected more of the birds could die overnight. They were to be evaluated this morning to figure out which were doing well enough to be released and which would need to undergo physical therapy, he said.
Those that need further medical attention likely will be shipped to Anchorage, where the Bird Treatment and Learning Center can care for them, he said.
Shipping them might be an issue, though. While the fish and wildlife agency has agreements with ERA Aviation and Alaska Airlines to fly injured birds for free when space is available, moving them in such large numbers could pose a problem, he said.
The dead birds will be shipped to a U.S. Department of Interior clearinghouse where Native American groups could apply to be given the birds or their feathers for ceremonial purposes.
Tony Olazabal, production manager at the Ocean Beauty plant, declined to comment when reached at home Friday night.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589. The Associated Press and KMXT public radio contributed to this report.