This Town Is Besieged by Violent Bald Eagles

In Alaska, America’s national bird sends people to the hospital.

This story appears in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Last January on Unalaska Island, Suzi Golodoff poured herself a hot cup of coffee, pulled on her boots, and stepped outside. She was immediately assaulted. “I’m pretty sure they were watching me leave the house, saw I had something in my mug, and waited,” she said. “I could have lost a finger.” But she didn’t. She was one of the lucky ones.

Her assailants were bald eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus—or Dutch Harbor pigeons, as they’re known around this fishing port in the Aleutian chain on the edge of the Bering Sea.

Bald eagles help themselves to morsels from a grocery store Dumpster near Dutch Harbor. When some U.S. founding fathers favored depicting an eagle on the young nation’s presidential seal, Benjamin Franklin disagreed. In a 1784 letter to his daughter, Franklin called the eagle “a Bird of bad moral Character” that steals fish other birds have caught.
Bald eagles help themselves to morsels from a grocery store Dumpster near Dutch Harbor. When some U.S. founding fathers favored depicting an eagle on the young nation’s presidential seal, Benjamin Franklin disagreed. In a 1784 letter to his daughter, Franklin called the eagle “a Bird of bad moral Character” that steals fish other birds have caught.

Especially during fishing season, hundreds of eagles come to scavenge and nest in the area, which is home to about 4,400 human residents. The birds make their presence known from atop telephone poles and stoplights. They accost people who wander too close during nesting season, sending victims to the medical clinic for scalp stitches. And they swarm every boat that comes into port, festooning the rigging by the dozen like baleful Christmas ornaments.

We’re used to seeing America’s national bird depicted as a majestic hero plucking wild salmon from pristine streams. But here you can see eagles for what they really are: scrappy, opportunistic feeders. If fresh fish isn’t available, the birds will eat seagulls, ducks, squirrels, mice, the occasional raven, bits of rotten meat dug out of the trash—or, in one case, a piece of pepperoni pizza snatched out of a teenager’s hand. Like us, eagles are adaptable. We should be proud.

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