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Fighting beak and claw
Donald Dale Jackson
May 16, 1977
Man used to look upon birds of prey as varmints. Now, with the very existence of some of these proud, beautiful creatures threatened, he is working hard, and with a glimmer of hope, to save them
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May 16, 1977

Fighting Beak And Claw

Man used to look upon birds of prey as varmints. Now, with the very existence of some of these proud, beautiful creatures threatened, he is working hard, and with a glimmer of hope, to save them

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We arrived at the canyon about 20 minutes before sundown. For a few moments there was no sound but the waterfall rush of the wind through the fir trees atop the cliff. We stared west, down the canyon toward the gap where it opened onto the sagebrush plain of western Utah.

Kent Keller spotted it first. He pointed at a black speck on the orange horizon, heading our way. Ron Joseph, the leader of the pocket safari, clamped his binoculars to his eyes, found the speck and smiled. "Yep, it's a bald," he said happily, "and he's fine, too, really fine." He hunched his shoulders in concentration. "Hey," he cried, "here come two more—wait a minute, there's another one." Joseph was trying to focus and point and make notes all at once.

The first eagle glided through the gap and into the canyon, flapped its great dark wings a few times and lit on a protruding ledge about 500 feet up the cliff. Then it began a slow, rim-to-rim examination of everything on the canyon floor, including us. Through the binoculars, I watched the burning eyes appraise us and move on—Let's see, three men, a pickup truck; nothing there for me.

The pair flying in tandem were an adult and a juvenile, the mature bird recognizable by the snow-white head that bald eagles acquire after four or five years. They scooted around the high cliff like children at a picnic, chasing and brushing each other, nearly locking in the air, then peeling off in sudden sharp turns. Keller squinted and pointed. We saw another half dozen eagles making for their roost on the canyon wall. One by one they flew through the gap, eased up on the throttle and landed, a squadron of jets returning to their carrier. One came in chirping in a peculiar, high-pitched voice. The sound an eagle makes is so startling a contrast to its appearance and manner that it seems a cosmic trick on the bird, a sabotaging of its dignity. It is as if John Wayne opened his mouth to speak and Jerry Lewis' voice came out.

Now, as still more white-crowned eagles soared toward the roost, a new chorus of squeaks came from the cliff. The call seemed to follow a pattern: the same note repeated five times, then a quick four notes down the scale. The eagles already settled were letting the later arrivals know that they were in place and comfortable, thanks. The message was Find another perch, but it didn't always work. Several times a younger bird flapped off, squawking, displaced by an elder with eyes for a particular ledge or branch.

Keller scanned the cliff with his glasses. "Twenty-one," he said. "All balds. Seventeen adults and four immatures." "Great," Joseph said. "This is the best day this winter." The two were gathering eagle data for Joseph's master's thesis in zoology at Brigham Young University.

The sun was about to set beneath the sage and the air was suddenly cold. "They're just about all in now," Joseph said. "They won't go anywhere after dark." Shadows climbed the cliffside, embracing the eagles and shuttering another day of hunting. All of them faced the valley rather than the cliff, ready for first light tomorrow.

We stared at the cliff as the shadows deepened. The birds were silent except for an occasional soft chirp, much less strident than before. "That's just happy talk, conversation," Joseph said. We could hear the waterfall sound of wind again. A few tentative snow drops were falling as we climbed into Keller's pickup for the drive back to Provo.

Joseph was elated. "What a day! What a day!" he exulted. "Who says there's no eagles anymore?"

For the large and growing number of Americans who are worried about wildlife, some of the news from the bird world, raptor division, is heartening. Raptors are birds of prey: eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and a few other species, united by the marvelous weapons they carry at the ends of their legs—and the ability to use them on live prey. Despite a once-dubious reputation, they have become fashionable. Corporations contribute to their well-being. Rewards are offered for information concerning their persecutors. Laws have been written to protect them. It is no longer legal in the U.S. to shoot or otherwise maim any bird of prey. There is even a federal protective area in Idaho for raptors, and there is talk of creating others. Research grants are available for raptor studies; one biologist went West a few years ago to investigate bighorn sheep, but he switched to eagles when he discerned the direction of the cash drift.

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