Unalaska residents keep eye on sky as nesting eagles attack

Megan Edge

Every spring, Unalaska goes from fishing hub to war zone thanks to an unlikely enemy. Nesting eagles pose a danger in the community of roughly 4,000 people that's better known for the reality TV show "The Deadliest Catch."

The aggressive nesting behavior of the 600-plus eagles swooping, circling and screeching above the island causes locals to keep a watchful eye toward the heavens. Health officials said aggressive behavior is the cause of a "handful" of bloody casualties each season.

Iliuliuk Family and Health Services Executive Director Eileen Scott said most attack victims need about six stitches, usually to their heads.

"I know one lady who was attacked twice on the same day," said Scott. "She went in, got cleaned up and taken care of, then was walking back to her house and the eagle got her again."

Unfortunately for the town's residents, two nests are right outside the doors of important community centers -- the post office and the health clinic.

"I was actually in the clinic one day and this man came in with these big saucer eyes and told me that he was attacked, the eagle stole his hat, and said the city owed him a brand new one," said Shirley Marquardt, Unalaska mayor for 10 years.

The loss of headgear is common though, according to Marquardt. She said there is a running joke in the community about all the cap thefts locals suffer during nesting season. "If you could actually get close enough to see into a nest, it would be covered in all of these weird hats," she said with a chuckle.

According to Scott, eagles particularly love using knitted caps in their nests. She frequently warns people not to wear them.

Signs exclaiming "Danger -- nesting eagles" are placed near rocky cliffs, ideal locations for nests. Next to the bold, black lettering is a stenciled image of a human with hands above head and an eagle with talons out, ready to attack.

The mayor said this ensures that everyone understands the potential harm the regal birds can cause on the rocky, rainy Aleutian island.

But Marquardt said commonsense choices -- taught to local children from an early age -- also keep people safe. Eagle safety knowledge is as common in Unalaska as looking both ways before crossing the street or packing a can of bear spray when hitting the trail might be elsewhere in Alaska.

"When kids are little, we tell them if you hear one, or feel it swooping, don't look up," said Marquardt, who's lived in Unalaska for 33 years. "We tell them to put their head down and to cover the back of their head and neck with their arms."

The mayor hikes with her iPod turned down low so she can pay close attention to the ear-piercing eagle calls. Pet owners keep an eye out for the predatory birds. And even the track team has a student eagle nest spotter who runs ahead of the pack and runs back if a nest is spotted, at which point, Scott said, the team will take a different trail.

Marquardt said it's expected that humans adjust to the birds and "anyone who's lived in Unalaska for any amount time at all has respect and understanding" for the eagles, and it's that mentality that allows the two species to coexist.

Contact Megan Edge at megan@alaskadispatch.com.


By Megan Edge
Alaska Dispatch