British Columbia

Bird lovers worry eagles are having trouble finding food after local dump closes

The number of bald eagles spotted in Terrace, B.C. has declined dramatically since the closure of a landfill north of town in November 2016.

Dramatic decline in the number of bald eagles spotted in Terrace, B.C., since landfill closure

Just 33 bald eagles were spotted during the Christmas bird count in Terrace, B.C. in 2016. Local bird watchers say the normal number is between 250 and 300. (Diane Weismiller)

They aren't certain, but bird watchers in Terrace, B.C. suspect the closure of a local landfill has impacted the area's bald eagle population.

"When the local ponds and rivers froze over, the birds would wind up at the landfill site looking for free food," says Keith Soules, a bird watcher and member of the Skeena Valley Naturalists.

"When it all froze up, there'd be huge numbers, anywhere from 200 to 300 eagles up there."

A far cry from the mere 33 recorded during last month's annual Christmas bird count. 

Eagles used to gather at the Terrace landfill north, as seen in this 2013 photo. The dump was closed in November 2016, leading the birds to seek out other food sources. (Diane Weismiller)

Bird lovers in the area suspect the closure of the Terrace landfill in November 2016 has led the raptors to seek out food elsewhere, while those that remain are turning to more desperate measures in order to survive the winter.

Soules regularly puts chicken scratch in his backyard for small birds, but this year he saw a full-grown eagle scratching through the snow to get the feed.

"I have never seen this before," he said.

Soules isn't alone in his unusual eagle encounter. Carol Sabo raises backyard poultry and has never had a problem with predatory birds, until this year, when four turkeys disappeared just as eagles started soaring around her yard.

Wingspans for bald eagles can be from 1.8 to 2.4 metres and they can fly hundreds of kilometres a day. (Lyle Grisedale)

With a solid five-foot fence around her yard, she says she can't think of any other animal that could be responsible.

"I'm pretty sure it was the eagles," she said.

Soules says it's tough to draw a direct line between the closure of the dump and the decline in eagles, but Gunther Golinas of the Prince Rupert Wildlife Shelter says it's not unusual for animals to relocate after losing a major food source.

"Once their food chain is broken, like with the dump or something like that ... they just move on," he said.

Eagle counters look for birds to add to the annual tally in the Squamish River Valley near Brackendale B.C. (CBC)

Wildlife biologist and eagle expert David Hancock says eagles are incredibly mobile birds, moving hundreds of kilometres a day to wherever they can find a food source — which also makes them hard to track.

"It's quite possible 10, 20, 50 thousand [of B.C.] eagles have gone to the Mississippi Valley," he said. "We just don't know."

Hancock noted the numbers at the annual Brackendale Eagle Count have also declined, in part because of unusually high water in November, making it harder for eagles to get at the salmon.

Meanwhile, he said, the Fraser Valley is "full of eagles" seeking out roadkill in places they aren't usually found in high numbers.

"It's not good for the eagles because their normal food supply is not available," he said.

"Will they adapt? That remains to be seen."

With files from Andrew Kurjata.

To hear the full story, click on the audio labelled 'Bird lovers worry the closure of Terrace's dump is hurting the local eagle population.'

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George Baker

Associate Producer

George Baker is a radio producer for CBC Daybreak North based out of Prince Rupert in northwest British Columbia. Twitter: @cbcbakergeorget