Bald Eagle
Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Bald Eagles are large and dangerous predatory birds of North America.  They used to be found throughout the US and Canada, but they are now most commonly seen in the northern forests and Arctic regions.  Bald Eagles are very sensitive to disturbance of their feeding and breeding areas by humans, and it is only in isolated or protected regions where they now occur in large numbers.  Bald Eagles make very large nests at the tops of trees close to water where they can get fish to feed their chicks.  Bald Eagles prefer to catch fish from streams and shallow water by flying low and snatching them out of the water with their feet! 

Early Eskimo and Indian hunters would look for flocks of eagles to tell them where the salmon were swimming, because eagles have better eyesight than we do.  When they see many fish close to the surface they will flock together to catch them.  Bald Eagles also will eat dead fish on the shore, and many good places to find them now are near fish canneries and city dumps.  Early Arctic people would make traps for eagles using dead fish and a hidden net to trap them.  Bald Eagles leave the arctic in fall and migrate south to warmer climates because they find it difficult to find food in winter.


Bald Eagle Nesting
Photo © PhotoDisc

19th Century Naturalist
Edward Nelson Recounts:

"Bald Eagles are very abundant throughout the Aleutian chain, where they are resident.  In summer they feed upon fish and the numerous wild fowl, which breed among these islands. In winter they feed upon ptarmigan and the seafowl, which reside there during this season.  When at the salmon run in Sanborn Harbor, Nagai, Mr. Dall saw seventeen eagles within 100 yards.  During winter he found many eagles dead, but they were too fat to have starved, and he was unable to account for the mystery.  When he left the islands in October, he found the young still unable to fly, and remarks upon the great length of time they remain in the nest.

Eagles are well known to be extremely common on the entire Aleutian chain, and thence along the south coast of Alaska throughout the Kodiak and Sitkan region.  In the latter part of its range it is mainly a fish-eating bird.  Throughout the northern portion of the Territory, where it is widely distributed, it is not uncommon to find a pair of eagles frequenting the cliffs in the interior, where they rear their young.  Here they prey upon the young reindeer and smaller game, and the natives accuse them of even carrying away children.

The following is a good specimen of Eskimo animal myths, and records the belief that long ago the eagles were larger and fiercer than they now are.  The story is current among the Eskimo along the Lower Yukon and neighboring coast:

In ancient times there were eagles of tremendous size frequenting the tops of the highest mountains in the interior and preying upon whales, and full-grown reindeer, and even upon men.  A volcanic crater of very regular outline, situated upon the summit of a mountain near the Lower Yukon, was pointed out to me as the nest of the ancient Mutughowik.  Around the rim of the crater are differently-colored stones, which, the natives claim, were gathered by these birds to ornament their nest.  When the birds sat here, overlooking the Yukon on the one side and the sea far away to the horizon on the other, their screams could be heard for miles, and many luckless creatures were caught in their talons and carried swiftly to their eyrie, and there torn into fragments to be devoured.  Year after year these birds remained, until men were afraid to go out on the broad bosom of the Yukon for fear of being caught by these evil guardians of the mountains overlooking their village.  Each year the young were raised and flew away, none knew whither; so that never more than two old birds inhabited the mountains. 

One spring, after the birds, as usual, had hatched their young, a famous hunter of the village went out alone to attend to his fish-nets.  While he was out one of these eagles soared high over the village, and seeing the hunter's wife outside of the house, swooped with a mighty rush of wings and carried her off to feed the nestlings.  Ere long the hunter returned, and with wailing cries his friends told him of his loss.  For a time he was inconsolable, but at length he seized his bow and examined it carefully, then he selected a quiver of his best arrows and heedless of remonstrance began climbing toward the nest of the eagles.  When he had nearly reached his goal he heard the whistling of great wings, and crouching behind a huge boulder, with an arrow drawn to its head, he waited.  In an instant the female bird was seen descending, her terrible eyes fired with rage; but just as she was about to grasp the hunter in her talons he buried an arrow under her wing and she fell far down the mountainside mortally hurt.  He then advanced and in a short time reached the summit of the mountain finding the young so large that they entirely filled the enormous nest.  All about were strewn fragments of men and animals, among which were seen the frames of many kayaks.  With vengeful heart he shot arrow after arrow until the last of the brood lay dead.  He had scarcely finished, when a wild cry was heard close by, and he saw the male bird approaching.  At the same instant the bird caught sight of its slain young and of the hunter.  A still 1ouder and more terrifying cry was heard, which made the villagers below shudder for their friend.  The eagle darted at its enemy.  With unshaken courage the hunter met each assault with a well-directed arrow until the bird, pierced with many wounds, turned, and, upon outspread wings, slowly glided away and vanished far off to the north.  Since then none of its kind has ever been seen, and men have been able to hunt without fear.  The villagers afterwards visited the nest with their deliverer and found many relics of friends who had perished, and it was only a few years ago that the remains of the kayaks were still to be seen about the nest. 

This story is implicitly believed by the natives of the Lower Yukon and adjacent sea-coast, and the Bald Eagle is known by the name which they apply to the bird of their legend."  

Bald Eagle subadult
Photo © Eric P. Hoberg

Bald Eagle nestling
Photo © Eric P. Hoberg

Several years ago an archeological site was discovered and excavated in an old volcano core in the Yukon Delta. Perhaps the old village inspired the Eskimo myth.

- Bill Fitzhugh

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