When Jessie Pack recorded himself feeding bald eagles on an Alaskan pier in 2013, he captured an incredible scene. Armed only with a bowl of scraps, the fisherman drew a sizable crowd of America’s favorite feathered friends and filmed it for good measure. The resultant footage also drew a sizable crowd of YouTube viewers after Pack shared it on the video sharing website. Indeed, more than eight million people have watched the feeding session and thrilled to an incredible sight as Pack’s camera panned left and things got even more remarkable.
The majestic bald eagle is an important symbol of the U.S. Venerated by First Nation peoples, it was subsequently chosen as the national bird when the republic was established. The bald eagle takes pride of place on the Great Seal of the United States and this image is replicated across all kinds of federal agencies. However, despite being as American and as familiar as the Star-Spangled Banner or a McDonald’s logo, the elusive nature of the actual species means that many of us have never set eyes on one in the wild.
However, for some lucky people, regular interactions with this rare and majestic bird of prey are not all that unusual at all. According to Jessie Peck, who works as a fisherman way up there in The Last Frontier, coming across an aerie of eagles is “just another day in Alaska.” And, what’s more, he has the video evidence to prove it.
At the start of the footage, which Peck posted on YouTube in January 2013, viewers can a bald eagle standing on a pier in the southern Alaskan settlement of Dutch Harbor. Situated in the Bering Sea in the Aleutian Islands, the port is sat in the middle of some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Indeed, the pier seems to be a hive of activity with men busying themselves around boats in the background. A few moments later, Peck joins the bird in the shot, armed with a bowl of fish scraps. A few seconds after that, frenzied activity of a different kind fills the frame.
We see Peck begin to throw the food to the waiting birds, and as he does a number of other bald eagles swoop down to join in the scavenging session. An opportunistic feeder, the bald eagle would be more than happy to help itself to such a free bounty. In fact, the representatives filmed here seem ecstatic at Peck’s generosity. As the fisherman continues to feed the creatures, we see more and more descend until the Alaskan man is pretty much surrounded.
Seemingly unperturbed by having such a throng of massively hungry scavengers all around him, Peck simply crouches down on the pier’s decking and throws out more meat. To ensure that every one of the powerful birds receives a morsel, the fisherman hauls the free food in all directions.
In time, we see Peck pluck up the courage to try and get one of the fearsome beasts to feed straight from his hand. He extends his arm out towards the hooked-beaked bird, enticing it with a particularly juicy piece of pink flesh. However, after inspecting the meat closely, the curious bird nonetheless refuses to accept the bait directly from Peck.
With his attempt to get even closer to the bald eagles having failed, the fisherman empties the contents of his bowl on to the decking, so that the ten or so birds can scramble over it themselves. Peck watches the amassed bald eagles intently as they pick at the scraps, before leaving them to it.
However, before the video comes to an end, we witness Peck walk away from the shot as the camera zooms out. And what that wider angle reveals is simply astonishing. Because, perching on the railing of the pier, there are at least a dozen more bald eagles, patiently awaiting their opportunity to nab some nourishment.
As the camera pans further around the harbor, it becomes clear to see that almost every perch-able surface is occupied by a bald eagle. They watch from fishing boats, nestle on the sides of cliffs and sit atop harbor lamps, making for quite an extraordinary sight. And it proved to be one that was extremely popular with YouTube users, with the clip accruing some 8,160,000 views since it went up.
The viral video’s popularity could be down to the fact that scenes such as this simply do not occur in other parts of the States. In Dutch Harbor, however, things are evidently much different. This could be because the tiny and remote fishing settlement is home to just under 5,000 people and more than 500 bald eagles.
As a result, Alaskan encounters with the mighty bird are not uncommon. In fact, natives of the port have even taken to calling bald eagles “Dutch Harbor pigeons.” However, not all of them are as orderly as the ones Peck encountered and enjoyed in his video. In fact, some bald eagles can be quite a menace to the people of the fishing village.
In Dutch Harbor, the powerful birds can often be seen rifling through trash, dive-bombing fishing trawlers and even snatching groceries from unsuspecting shoppers. And, in one incident that made headlines, an anti-social bald eagle even attacked an innocent bystander in the street.
The episode occurred outside the post office in Dutch Harbor back in June 2011. Ironically, the U.S. Postal Service is proud to display the likeness of a bald eagle on its logo. Nevertheless, one of their number swooped down on a post office customer, swiping them with its talons as it did so. The bird, who was believed to have been protecting some newly hatched chicks in a nest near the building, was so violent that its attack spilt blood. And the authorities only had 5,000 or so local suspects to consider.
Bald eagles have always been relatively abundant in far-flung places such as Alaska, but the same cannot be said for other states. In the latter half of the 20th century, bald eagle populations were almost wiped out across the U.S. At the time, it was thought that hunting, habitat loss and agricultural pesticide use had all contributed to the beleaguered birds’ plight.
In fact, things became quite desperate for the bald eagle in the 1950s. The species’ population had soared as high as 500,000 in the 18th century, but had subsequently plummeted to just 412 nesting pairs in the mainland U.S. by the ’50s. As a result, the government decided that something had to be done for the iconic national bird.
The threatened species had first received some level of protection in the U.S. and Canada in 1918. However, it would not be until 1940 that the commercial confinement and slaughter of the birds was prohibited. Nevertheless, the bald eagle was classified as endangered by 1967, and soon after laws on usage of the birds in commerce were tightened further.
And these measures, along with the U.S. ban on the harmful pesticide DDT in 1972, saw the bald eagle population slowly begin to recover. Today, the species is on the up, particularly in remote locations near water – such as Dutch Harbor. Consequently, federal agencies estimated that there were almost 10,000 breeding pairs in the U.S. by 2006.
Indeed, in the state of Alaska alone, the bald eagle population lies somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000. And the simple reason that places like Dutch Harbor in the state are such havens to the species is down to the fishing industry. Fish catching, processing and dispatching all mean that there are plenty of scraps and leftovers for the massive birds to scavenge. Dutch Harbor boasts of being the most productive fishing port in the U.S. And, as Peck’s video clearly showed, it can also boast about its bald eagle numbers.
So, with things finally looking brighter for the species elsewhere in the States, the U.S. federal government removed bald eagles from its endangered species list in 1995. Meanwhile, the bird is also now in the Least Concern category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. So, in the future, seeing bald eagles in the wild might not be so rare for those of us who aren’t Alaskan fishermen.