In Washington State, bald eagles and dairy farmers exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. This win-win connection is driven by the impact of climate change on eagles’ traditional winter diet of salmon carcasses, and the increase in eagle abundance following decades of conservation efforts.
Typically, the narrative around birds and farmers is combative due to livestock predation. However, many farmers have grown to appreciate the services that eagles provide, which includes carcass removal and pest control.
Researchers at the University of Washington and Trinity Western University in Canada conducted interviews with farmers on dairy operations to better understand this unique relationship. The study was motivated by lead author Ethan Duvall’s research showing that eagles have been redistributing from rivers to farmland over the past 50 years.
“Climate change has altered the chum salmon spawning schedule, causing them to run earlier in the winter,” said Duvall. “Now the salmon are spawning when annual Nooksack River flooding is at its peak. The fish who spawn and die are swept away by the high water instead of being deposited on shore where the eagles can easily access them.”
Many rivers in the Pacific Northwest have experienced dramatic salmon population declines, eliminating winter resources for eagles. To adapt, eagles have turned to dairy farm by-products resulting from the births and deaths of cows and prey on waterfowl populations in agricultural areas.
“We know this positive interaction between farmers and bald eagles is not the norm in many other agricultural areas, especially near free-range poultry farms where the eagles snatch chickens,” said Duvall.
“But this study gives me hope that, moving forward, farmers, wildlife managers, and conservationists can come together to think critically about how to maximize benefits for people and wildlife in the spaces they share.”
The research is published in the journal Ecosphere.
By Katherine Bucko, Earth.com Staff Writer
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