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