In Sitka, the cawing, prancing and solicitations of the huge black ravens are as incessant as the translucent mist that so often clings like pearl luster over the Alaskan landscape.
But the sound that trumps all is the shrill penetrating call of the eagle, a kind of brittle broken-glass cascade of intoxicating sound, tumbling and tumbling through the damp sea air as if there is no earth beneath, no humans to catch it.
Here, the eagles are as common as the robins of home, and remain a universal symbol of courage. Of course, our lovely corner of the Pacific Northwest has eagles, and more and more as their fragile population swells. They have swooned into our existence since their near demise. By 1963, only 487 nesting pairs remained in the country due to DDT, now, mercifully, as extinct as the eagles nearly were. Several hundred migrate to both sides of the Columbia River in the springtime. An estimated colony of 40 to 50 birds reside permanently. The count in America has swollen to 100,000.
Caring for Sitka’s birds
Sitka is proud to claim the Alaska Raptor Center, the only full-service bird hospital and educational center in Alaska. It is proud to be privately funded, frequently existing on donations from the likes of you and me.
One might never guess that an injured raptor is brought in once every other day. The birds get tangled in lines, crippled in mortal combat with other generally smaller raptors who have quicker mobility. They are hit by cars and trucks or entangled in a vast number of near-fatal collisions. Surprisingly, one of the biggest factors is lack of food. The birds can simply go hungry, get weaker and weaker, and then die. Winter can be a cruel arbitrator.
Many of the birds experience head collisions much like a pro-football head-butt, and recover in due course. Hopefully, they continue to fly in a straight line. Others become permanent residents, like the infamous eagle, Volta, the white-headed star of the show at the raptor center. Incidentally, it takes an eagle about five years to mature into the inspiring beauty we associate with the white head and tail.
Many of the eagles live for several decades in this nurturing captivity. Volta (dumb-struck by electricity as a youth) is now 35. His broken wing was beyond repair.
The eagle (ch’aak in Tlingit) is a clan symbol, or a moiety—hereditary half—of Tlingit and Haida societies.
The raven is a sassy, smart, and, seemingly, kind of indignant personality. They certainly are mischievous. Their black bodice and coal-black eyes are common in most Alaskan villages. They can steal food with a deftness that might startle the finest of burglars, some as competent as the legendary Bilbo Baggins. But then, there are no recent reports of dragons in this 49th state, though First Nation Peoples honor the sisiutl, the double-headed serpent of the deep ocean.
Meanwhile, the center shelters six different types of raptors: owls, hawks, falcons, osprey and kites as well as the noble eagle. I’m proud to say that our Columbia-Pacific homeland is also safe habitat to all these individual raptors.
Shelters on the Columbia-Pacific
Humanity claims its prisoners. Pacific and Clatsop counties have three fine animal shelters. The Wildlife Center of the North Coast administers to avians. All three are well maintained and volunteers throw heart and soul into the wounded and abandoned birds and animals.
From Seaview to the northern tip of the Long Beach Peninsula, I’ve spotted a number of Peregrine falcons. I even knew falconers who raised the raptors they trapped at Ledbetter State Park. Their relationship with the birds were tight. Oh, how they loved the grace of the Peregrine’s freefall at 200 miles per hour. Imagine the impact of such velocity, their ability to stop on a dime.
A harsh winter often flushes out the famous pure-white Snowy owl who migrates out of the ice lands further north when the weather turns severe. Of course, the owl’s close cousins are common place to the backwoods of the Columbia-Pacific terrain. To mention a few: the Great Horned, Barn, Boreal, Saw-whet, and the infamous Northern Spotted owl.
At home, a particular brand of wariness seems common to our raptors. In Alaska, they can practically drop at your feet, especially if fish flesh is involved. I recently saw a dozen tangle just a couple of yards away, where deckhands were cleaning salmon.
But the greatest joy must be in the autumn when the salmon are returning to home waters. Out of Yakutat, I saw a huge eagle drag a 30-pound salmon onto the shore after swimming a half-mile with the Chinook trapped in its talons.
From Astoria, British Columbia and into Alaska, we pay homage to our winged friends. Raptors live along waterways and penetrate the lush green glades. They lounge on limbs and telephone poles. As their spirits seem to do, they rise thousands of feet into the pale blue sky, seemingly, without effort. Above all else, we celebrate their freedom.