As staff at a local Unalaska shop opened the back door for a delivery last week, they got an unexpected visitor. An adult female eagle dashed in and headed for the rafters, occasionally swooping down toward the people and merchandise below.
Or as Megan Dean, one of the rescuers put it: “An eagle decided to go shopping at Alaska Ship Supply.”
Dean regularly helps rescue injured or sick eagles on the island, which are then flown to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.
She said the eagle at the store on Thursday flew around for more than an hour as staff tried to evict her.
When Dean arrived, the eagle was high up in the store’s rafters. She and another volunteer, Brianna McGrath — a local fisheries biologist who heads the group of four local eagle wranglers — had to tire the large bird out by making noise and waving blankets and long objects in the air until she landed on the ground. Then, they were able to catch her and release her back outside.
“The eagle did not appear to sustain any injuries, and was met by her impatiently-waiting mate in the parking lot,” Dean said.
Eagle-human interactions like this one are a common affair in Unalaska. There are about 300 to 600 eagles on the island, according to the Christmas Bird Count — a census of birds performed annually by volunteer birdwatchers for the National Audubon Society. The eagles often get injured or killed by cars or in fights and need to be flown off island for rehabilitation or euthanization.
“I was talking to someone in Connecticut, and they said, ‘If we see an eagle, we talk about it for two weeks,’” Dean said. “I just drove past the landfill the other day, and there were at least 100. And so they behave and interact with humans a little differently, I think, here than they do in other places because of that.”
Dean — a self-proclaimed “bird nerd” — decided to help in the local rescue effort earlier this year to bridge the summer gap in volunteers.
She’s responded to two dozen calls about potentially injured eagles in the past six months. And about half of those, she said, have been flown out to Bird TLC.
“There were a lot that had extensive injuries and most of them had to be euthanized, unfortunately,” Dean said.
She acknowledged that the process of securing the giant injured raptors would be daunting to most.
Volunteers have to throw a thick blanket over the birds and secure their talons and beak to avoid getting hurt. Even when eagles are severely injured, she said, they still have extensive strength.
“Their talons have a psi of about 400 pounds per square inch. I read somewhere it’s about the same strength as a lion’s mouth,” she said. “So they’re pretty strong. There was one this summer where before the talons were secured, it reached up and it went through two layers of a fleece blanket like butter.”
Dean said the majority of birds that get sent off island to Bird TLC don’t return because they have to be euthanized or aren’t strong enough to be released back into the wild. But earlier this year, she said, a large female eagle that was injured on a fishing vessel was successfully rehabilitated and released this summer near Cook Inlet.