Benjamin Franklin is perhaps best remembered for his role as a founding father of America. He was a revered statesman who helped draft the Declaration of Independence. His antics of flying a kite in a lightning storm to prove out some of the unanswered questions of electricity was at one time, and maybe still is, a staple of elementary-school science classes.
My thoughts rarely include Benjamin Franklin. When they do, it is while making a deposit at the local landfill.
Benjamin Franklin had this to say about the bald eagle as the national symbol:
“I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative to our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on a dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him. Besides he is a rank coward; the little Kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest of America.”
He went on to opine that the turkey, a much more respectable bird of courage, would have been a better choice. No less than John James Audubon concurred with Franklin’s opinion of the bald eagle.
On June 20, 1782, a committee (there’s always a “committee”) proclaimed the big bird as the national symbol. They based the selection on the bald eagle’s notional representation of the qualities of longevity, strength and freedom, and its stunning good looks.
The aesthetic rapture of seeing the big bird riding the thermals above mountain peaks was evidence enough for the committee, which it would seem knew next to nothing about the bird.
Not so much for old Ben, who seemed to have more than a passing knowledge of the bird’s character and didn’t confuse simple good looks with imagined qualities.
We Alaskans enjoy the presence of half of North America’s estimated 70,000 bald eagles (they exist solely in North America), and thus have the opportunity to see them make their living in much less majestic ways than most would imagine.
When some friends planned to visit Alaska last year, one of their bucket-list items was to see and photograph bald eagles.
“That’s easy,” I told them, half joking. “We’ll just go to the landfill.”
“Do you mean the dump?” they asked.
Yep. The 2018 Christmas bird count recorded 784 bald eagles hanging out at the Central Peninsula Landfill in Soldotna.
By assumed association, the bald eagle is classed with the great raptors of the north country — the goshawk, the peregrine falcon, the gyrfalcon and the most magnificent of the aerial hunters, the golden eagle.
Much as we may want our national symbol to embody the characteristics of the aforementioned raptors, which you will not see at the dump, close scrutiny reveals they are, for the most part, scavengers. Birds of opportunity that will take the handout every time.
It isn’t that bald eagles aren’t capable like their associates. They can hunt, although, for those that live outside the subsidy of civilization, fish is their more common source of food. For all of their physical attributes, eagles aren’t very efficient hunters. It is speculated that one out of every 15 attempts on live adult prey, such as rabbits, squirrels, grouse or ducks, is successful. They are hell on ducklings and other young birds.
They will tackle bigger prey when pressed, and some say they prey on lambs, but this is probably more common with the golden eagle. Once, while walking a flowing stream bank in winter after a fresh snow, we saw the unmistakable track of a young river otter leaving the stream. About 20 feet from water’s edge, the track abruptly ended with the evidence of a 6-foot wingspan lightly touching the snow on either side.
Even a small otter is a big animal for an eagle to carry. Four pounds is considered to be about all they can fly off with. But we saw the evidence and marveled at the display of strength.
Another time we were driving through Cooper Landing in mid-January, where eagles sit in tall trees and wait for the opportunity to catch late-running silver salmon. Coming around the bend by Cooper Creek there was a bald eagle in midstream of the Kenai River. It seemed to be injured and was floundering, like a drowning person.
We stopped and ran back in time to see the big bird “paddle” with his wings to the far shore and emerge with a 10-pound silver salmon in his talons.
Their fishing is not always honest, as ice fishermen who leave fish on the ice with an eagle in the area can attest. One swooped in from behind me once and stole the 3-pound char I had lying on the ice 20 feet away — a teaching moment.
But scavenging can backfire. When rabbit or game-bird populations are high and their carcasses, hit by vehicles, litter the highway, eagles come in to take advantage. Ravens, crows and magpies scavenge along with them, but they are much quicker and can dodge the passing vehicles that the eagles are too slow to avoid.
It isn’t that I don’t enjoy bald eagles. Their airborne sparring matches are fabulous. Their raucous screeching and their relationship with magpies as they team up to dismantle a winter-killed big animal are captivating. Detached from the landfill or some other human-created “feeder bar,” they are, in their way, magnificent birds.
It’s been many years since the first time I drove to the landfill to deposit a load of garbage and found myself surrounded by hundreds of our national symbol, hanging out, waiting for the heavy equipment to turn over a tasty morsel. The sight is so disturbing I avoid it and use transfer sites whenever possible.
The sad irony of it all is that Ben Franklin was right, and the committee that made the choice must have been clairvoyant. The bald eagle embodies what a significant part of American culture seems to have become. I wonder if they had chosen a goshawk or a golden eagle, whether things might have turned out different.
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.