What it’s like to live with a national symbol
Dutch Harbor is a small town on a small island far out in Alaska’s Aleutian chain, nearly 1,200 miles from Anchorage at the edge of the Bering Sea. It’s the most productive fishing port in the United States. Every winter the tiny population swells with thousands of people who come to work in the fish processing plants, on the crab boats, or out on the big cod and pollack trawlers. But they’re not the only ones trying their fortunes in town or out on the boats.
People in town call them Dutch Harbor pigeons. The rest of us call them bald eagles. In a community of just over 4,700 permanent residents, there live an estimated 500 to 800 eagles. They stare judgily down from light posts, peer intently into people’s windows, eat foxes and seagulls while perched in the trees next to the high school, and sit on rooflines like living weather vanes. Down at the docks, they swarm every boat that comes into port like some sort of Hitchcockian nightmare, fighting for scraps of bait, elbowing one another for prime positions, crowding together on top of crab pots, and squawk-cheeping their opinions.
We’re used to seeing our national bird as a valiant hero in nature documentaries plucking salmon from pristine streams, on the back of every dollar bill in our wallets, or on pretty much every federal seal — from the NSA and the CIA to the office of the president. But in Dutch, especially in winter when it’s harder for them to catch fish, you can see eagles for what they really are: hardy, scrappy scavengers.
Turns out that when you live with a federal symbol up close and personal, day in and day out, it’s a little harder to think of them as majestic. Bald eagles show up in the local police blotter alongside reports of drunk fishermen passing out in the wrong bunk or taking off in someone else’s forklift.
My first morning in Dutch I went down to KUCB, the local TV and radio station, to ask people for their eagle stories. Before I’d gone off the air I was getting calls and texts. One man drove straight over to the station in his snowplow to catch me before I’d left the parking lot. Everyone in town has an eagle story, usually more than one.
Sixteen-year-old Ethan Iszler was walking back to school eating a piece of pepperoni pizza when an eagle came, seemingly from nowhere, and stole it right out of his hand. Other people have had eagles try to swoop down on their dogs while they’re out on walks or nab their groceries in the parking lot of the local Safeway.
Andres Ayure, a Coast Guard lieutenant, has lived in Dutch for just over a year. On his third day in Alaska he’d decided to hike up Mount Ballyhoo, a gorgeous, sweeping mountain on the edge of town. On his way down, a juvenile eagle decided he or she didn’t like the look of Ayure in his American Eagle hoodie and dive-bombed him more than ten times — scaring him to death. “I was like, ‘No way. Third day in Alaska. I didn’t want to come here, and now I’m going to die by the hand of an eagle. This is B.S.’”
Ayure barely escaped. When he patted the front pocket of his sweatshirt he realized he’d lost his phone and his keys while ducking and sliding away from the bird’s talons. He looked back up the mountain, just in time to see the eagle fly off with his phone.
During nesting season, when the eagles are protective of their chicks, going anywhere near them can be dangerous. It gets so bad at the post office, where one defensive pair has built a nest above the parking lot, warning signs show a diving bird with talons primed for attack and a customer waving his hands in fear: danger nesting eagles it reads in shouty red letters. People also leave out helmets and sticks so you can defend yourself on the way in.
Beatriz Dietrick is a nurse practitioner at Iliuliuk Family and Health Services and the only full-time medical care provider in Dutch Harbor. Most of the traumatic injuries she treats are from fishing or processing plant injuries — grisly finger amputations or men whose chests have been crushed by heavy, swinging metal crab pots. “Eagle attack injuries are the most disturbing thing to see, though,” she told me. “Victims come in bleeding profusely from the head. It’s like they’ve been hit by a two-by-four.” People are covered in dirt or mud — their clothes rumpled and torn — because the full force of an eagle attack is enough to knock you flat on the ground. One woman was attacked at the post office, and then went to the clinic to get care, but before she could get into the building, she was attacked again.
Eagles became our federal symbol in 1782 — one year before the end of the Revolutionary War, when the United States was still fighting for independence from England and large massacres of Native Americans were taking place in the Midwest. Ben Franklin regretted the decision to put them on the national seal — he thought eagles had “bad moral character.” In a letter to his daughter, he said he would have preferred the turkey, even though he admitted they were “vain and a little silly.”
Eagles thrived for a while, but as the nation’s population grew, theirs plummeted, first from trapping, shooting, and poisoning, then habitat loss and the pesticide DDT, which damaged their eggs. The birds became federally protected in 1940. Between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, they largely rebounded, and in 2007 they were taken off the endangered species list, though it’s still illegal, without a permit from the Secretary of the Interior, to hunt, harm, or even “agitate or bother” one.
When I started asking questions about eagles in Dutch, almost everyone immediately asked if I’d been to the dump. If you work at the dump, especially if you manage the dump, the eagles are, well, present. William “B.J.” Cross is the manager of the landfill. He has to deal with eagles all day, every day. “I really liked them in the beginning,” he told me. But “they’re kind of annoying. They’re very annoying,” he said. “You can only do so much because they’re protected. Sometimes you spray a little water around. We have lasers — not to point at them but just to flash in the building,” he said. “We’ve tried putting up bird spikes, which the eagles just fold over; they don’t even care.”
The birds fly up to the rafters of the dump’s trash-compacting building where they tear things apart — dropping bones, carcasses, and other trash onto the floor or anyone standing below. They also crap on people’s heads, all over the floor, on the walls, stairways, and handrails, leaving a Jackson Pollock–like coating of thick white splotches that smells only marginally better than the garbage. Outside, they try to rip into bales of trash.
All of this makes me wonder if it’s possible to still respect national symbols once you get to know them. I asked Andres Ayure, the Coast Guard lieutenant whose phone was stolen and who nearly got scalped, whether he thought the eagle still deserved to be our national bird: “I understand why the eagle is the symbol. A lot of people don’t know about the other side. And it’s probably for the best. I mean, honestly, as I was getting attacked I was still appreciating the magnificence of the eagle. Even though I was cursing it.”