Lo­cal Hero

Fas­ci­nated by birds of prey as a young boy, David Han­cock has been a life­long ad­vo­cate and de­fender of bald ea­gles

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - Text and Pho­tog­ra­phy by Is­abelle Groc

Fas­ci­nated by birds of prey as a boy, David Han­cock has been a life­long ad­vo­cate and de­fender of bald ea­gles

WILDLIFE BI­OL­O­GIST (AS WELL AS con­ser­va­tion­ist, writer, pub­lisher, lec­turer, film­maker and pi­lot) David Han­cock has been watch­ing bald ea­gles in British Columbia for more than 65 years. His joy and en­thu­si­asm every time he sees one have not faded. “I have never got­ten over my won­der­ment of these birds,” he says.

Han­cock, now 80, be­came fas­ci­nated with birds of prey as a child in the 1950s, when he in­ad­ver­tently caught his first rap­tor — a Cooper’s hawk — in a quail trap on Van­cou­ver Is­land. He was 11. At age 14, he had a close en­counter with a ju­ve­nile bald ea­gle, an in­jured bird he helped re­ha­bil­i­tate. “I was so en­chanted by the abil­ity of these fly­ing ma­chines that I de­cided that I had to learn to fly my­self,” he says. After he grad­u­ated from high school, Han­cock bought a small two-seater plane and flew up and down the B.C. coast and over the Fraser Val­ley, search­ing for bald ea­gle nests. “I would go around Mount Tuam on Salt Spring Is­land, and there would be 10 to 20 ea­gles soar­ing there,” he re­mem­bers. “One time I cut my en­gine and started to soar down, join­ing the ea­gles. It was a quiet mo­ment — my only day be­ing a glider pi­lot.”

When Han­cock started track­ing ea­gles, nests were hard to find. In the early 1960s, as he flew over wa­ter­ways and for­est edges, he counted only three pairs of nest­ing ea­gles in the Fraser Val­ley. The ex­pla­na­tion was sim­ple: ea­gles were con­sid­ered ver­min. From 1917 to 1952, a bounty on bald ea­gles spon­sored by the Alaska govern­ment elim­i­nated at least 120,000 birds (killed in Wash­ing­ton State as well as Alaska) and dev­as­tated the an­nual mi­gra­tion. “I un­der­stood the sig­nif­i­cance of peo­ple’s at­ti­tudes to­wards ea­gles. It was dev­as­tat­ing,” he says.

As he re­al­ized his beloved birds were in trou­ble, Han­cock de­cided to ded­i­cate his life and work to chang­ing pub­lic at­ti­tudes and help con­serve bald ea­gles. He spoke in schools, made films, placed live cam­eras in ea­gle nests and ac­tively worked to pro­tect nest trees. “I was one of many peo­ple who wanted to make a dif­fer­ence, mak­ing peo­ple aware of the ea­gles’ spec­tac­u­lar­ness.”

Pub­lic at­ti­tudes grad­u­ally changed, and bald ea­gles gained full pro­tec­tion in the 1950s. As a re­sult, pop­u­la­tions have sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased. Now Han­cock has iden­ti­fied at least 400 pairs of nest­ing ea­gles in the Fraser Val­ley. How­ever, the birds’ re­cov­ery does not mean Han­cock’s job is done. He es­ti­mates there are 35,000 ea­gles alight­ing in the Lower Fraser Val­ley as they pass through each year. Han­cock fig­ures it may be the largest bald ea­gle gath­er­ing in the world. “If we have the most ea­gles in the world, that gives us the world’s big­gest re­spon­si­bil­ity to un­der­stand where they are com­ing from and where they are go­ing.”

Ea­gles face new threats. For ex­am­ple, they are in­creas­ingly los­ing nest­ing habi­tat as vet­eran trees are cut down for res­i­den­tial and in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment. Han­cock is also con­cerned about the birds’ ex­po­sure to pes­ti­cides. “We have a con­ser­va­tion obli­ga­tion,” he says. “We have to make sure that what we are feed­ing them is not poi­soned and con­tam­i­nated.”

In an ef­fort to bet­ter un­der­stand bald ea­gles, Han­cock re­cently launched a study in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity that en­tails cap­tur­ing birds and out­fit­ting them with so­lar-pow­ered track­ing de­vices us­ing cel­lu­lar tech­nol­ogy. When­ever a bird flies within range of a cell tower, the tracker trans­mits data that tells Han­cock and his team where the ea­gle has been. “If you had kids, you would want your kids to call home,” Han­cock says. His team is also test­ing the birds’ feath­ers for pes­ti­cides and heavy met­als and will use the GPS data to un­der­stand where the ea­gles pick up con­tam­i­nants. “These birds are car­ry­ing an in­cred­i­ble mes­sage once you learn how to an­a­lyze for it.”1

To learn more and to track the ea­gles’ move­ments (and watch live cov­er­age of nu­mer­ous ea­gle nests) visit the Han­cock Wildlife Foun­da­tion’s web­site: han­cock­wildlife.org.

Han­cock says Cana­di­ans have a spe­cial role: “... We have the most ea­gles in the world, that gives us the world’s big­gest re­spon­si­bil­ity to un­der­stand where they are com­ing from and where they are go­ing”

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