June 18, 2018
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After death, Maine eagles help fill national demand

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

Spend a bit of time in the halls of a governmental agency and you’re sure to hear a few things that make you perk up your ears. That was the case a couple weeks back when I dropped by to visit Brad Allen, a Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist who works out of Bangor.

“Charlie, there’s a bag of eagles for you downstairs,” Allen told fellow biologist Charlie Todd, the state’s bald eagle expert, as the colleagues passed each other in the hallway.

A bag of eagles, I thought. There must be a story there.

As it turns out, there is. But while I assumed that five dead bald eagles in a bag must be cause for alarm, I quickly learned that at the Bangor DIF&W office, the scenario is no big deal. In fact, it’s business as usual.

Allen, the DIF&W’s bird group leader, explained that dead eagles typically end up in Bangor. And since the widely celebrated resurgence of the birds in recent years, Maine’s got a pretty sizable flock of eagles. They sit in trees. They mate. They eat. And, predictably, they die.

“There are 600-plus pairs of eagles in the state of Maine, so that’s 1,200 eagles. For math purposes, let’s say there’s 1,000 eagles,” Allen said. “I think natural mortality of eagles is 5 percent [per year], so if you’ve got 1,000 eagles [and lose] 5 percent a year, you would normally expect 50 to die.”

Because eagles are high-profile birds, when someone comes across a dead eagle, they’re more apt to notify the authorities, Allen said. That’s where the DIF&W comes in.

“When one dies, we hear about it, and we want to hear about it,” Allen said. “If you find a dead barred owl, it’s not that big a deal, but a dead bald eagle brings attention … they’re such magnificent birds that people care.”

Relying on his earlier mathematical model, Allen said that if 50 eagles die in Maine in a year, the DIF&W probably receives 40 of the carcasses.

In some situations, the cause of death is apparent. In other cases, it’s not, and tests can be conducted, according to Allen.

“If an eagle comes in and it’s a law enforcement case, where someone might have shot one, it becomes evidence and that [bird] doesn’t go anywhere,” Allen said. “If it’s an eagle that dies near a paper mill, we might sample it for contaminants. If it dies of really suspicious causes, like lead poisoning, we might take some samples.”

But after all the sampling is done, those eagles are all disposed of the same way.

They’re sent to Colorado.

“We are required by law to send those birds, those carcasses, to Colorado, to a feather repository,” Allen said. “There’s a federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service group that takes the feathers and makes them available to Native Americans. And Native Americans are very eager to use eagle parts, even their skeletons and skulls, for their ceremonies.”

The facility, known as the National Eagle Repository, is located in Commerce City, Colo., and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, it was established in the early 1970s to provide Native Americans with feathers and other parts of bald and golden eagles.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, demand for the eagle feathers and parts is high, and outstrips supply. The group’s website advises that Native Americans ordering a whole bald eagle carcass can expect to wait about 2½ years for their order to be filled.

According to federal law it is illegal to possess eagle feathers or parts without a permit.

“There’s a lot of demand, and that demand can be met with each state cooperating with that repository and sending eagles [to Colorado],” Allen said.

Eagles dining on cormorants

Ask a few Maine anglers what they think of cormorants and you’re likely to get an earful.

The fact is, cormorants eat fish. Anglers want to catch fish. And many anglers don’t want the competition.

“There are no friends of cormorants in the state of Maine,” the DIF&W’s Allen said with a chuckle. “Me and about two other people. And there is probably a cormorant-haters society.”

Allen pointed out that members of that fictional cormorant-haters society have much less to complain about than they did several years ago.

“In 1985 we estimated 28,000 pairs of cormorants nesting on the coast of Maine,” Allen said. “In our last survey, in 2008, 23 years later, there were less than 10,000 [pairs]. So our cormorant numbers are down two-thirds from 20 years ago.”

The reason for the population decrease is quite simple, Allen said: Bald eagles like to munch on cormorants, and there are a lot more cormorant-munching eagles around now than there were 23 years ago.

“[Cormorant numbers] will continue to go down and it’s not that it’s a horrible thing. It’s nature’s way. It’s a shift,” Allen said. “When the eagle numbers were low, the cormorant numbers were high. And now that eagle numbers are high, cormorants are taking it on the chin a little bit because they’re food.”

And while Allen has nothing against cormorants, he knows there are plenty of Mainers who don’t share his sentiment.

“So, if you’re a fisherman who doesn’t want to compete with a cormorant for a six-inch brook trout, then you might take some comfort in that knowledge,” Allen said.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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