ANCHOR POINT, Alaska -- Bald eagles are supposed to be our national symbol of freedom, a feathered embodiment of liberty.
Except they don't behave that way on this expansive beach near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, which got its name when explorer Capt. James Cook had the anchor torn off his ship by the massive tides while seeking the mythical Northwest Passage in 1787.
These days, Anchor Point is renowned for the giant halibut caught offshore in the Cook Inlet and the salmon that return to the Anchor River every summer and early fall to spawn. Almost as well known, and depicted on the town's welcome sign along the Sterling Highway, are bald eagles that choose this place for their summer homes, taking advantage of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish carcasses dumped on the beach every afternoon by charter-boat deckhands.
At first, watching dozens of bald eagles go through their daily feeding ritual felt like a real-life episode of "Wild Kingdom." All that was missing was the Marlin Perkins voiceover. But the novelty eventually wore off and gave way to uneasy questions.
Are bald eagles, America's national bird and emblem, little more than glorified scavengers? And, if so, are humans the cause?
Yes and no, said Bruce Woods, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman based in Anchorage.
"Bald eagles do hunt for food, but mostly they're natural scavengers. If there's an easy meal to be had, a bald eagle will always take advantage," Woods said.
"But it's not like they learn that behavior from humans. They do that on their own. Here in Alaska, when there's a salmon spawn on big rivers, you'll see hundreds of bald eagles feeding on the carcasses. And not just fish. They'll feed on mammal carcasses, too."
Turns out bald eagles don't turn their beaks at much. In some Alaska coastal cities they're often seen feeding at garbage dumps, their regal white heads blackened with soot.
Scavengers? Trash eaters? They don't teach you that in civics class. But at least the species is thriving.
Not all that long ago, bald eagles were on the verge of extinction due to increased use of DDT and other pesticides. Washed into lakes and streams, these harmful toxins were assimilated by aquatic plants and animals, which were then eaten by fish. This resulted in widespread bald eagle poisoning and sterility.
In the 1960s, the estimated number of nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states dipped to 450. This led to new protections, including the ban of DDT use in 1972 and the Bald Eagle Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Thanks to these measures, bald eagle populations rebounded to the point where they were removed from the federal government's list of endangered and threatened species in 2007.
Today, according to the USFWS, an estimated 70,000 bald eagles live throughout North America. (They are the only eagle species unique to this continent.) About half live in Alaska.
The central San Joaquin Valley has its share of bald eagles, especially during the winter months, when nesting pairs hole up in places such as Millerton Lake and Eastman Lake. (Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies.) And not all of them fly north for the summer. Earlier this month, an 11-week-old fledgling -- the first bald eagle born at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge -- took his first flight.
It doesn't take more than a few minutes on the Internet to learn that some of the bald eagle's more unsavory characteristics, namely their feeding habits, were well known in the 18th century. But that didn't stop Thomas Jefferson from establishing the bird as an emblem for an emerging nation. Among those who disagreed was Benjamin Franklin, who called them "rank cowards" and "a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly."
Instead, Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be chosen as our national symbol. After many hours spent watching bald eagles gorge themselves on fish carcasses, I can't help but think he may have been right.
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