Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 25

June 20-26, 2002

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Eagles Are Fine in the Wild, But Don’t Bring One Home

Sleep softly . . . eagle forgotten . . . under the stone.
—“The Eagle That Is Forgotten”: Vachel Lindsay, 1879-1931.

Once there was a time when I wished to high heaven an eagle would be not only forgotten but also overlooked — though not under a stone. I’m quite sure Lawrence Small is today of the same opinion.

Perhaps you read in the daily press this past week about Mr. Small’s association with eagles. The chief of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, he also is in hot water with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The eagle that’s at the root of his problem is the harpy, not the bald variety that almost did me in about 25 years ago. The harpy is endangered. The bald eagle is hatching its way out of such a classification, but a quarter of a century ago it was in deep doo-doo.

When something is on the rare and endangered species list, one had better not get within a country mile of it. Even a single feather can be enough to put one in a pickle. The maximum costs can be up to $100,000. Add to that a year in the jug.

Deep in Harpy Doo-Doo
Consider Mr. Small’s plight. There was a lush color spread of his private Amazonian art collection in Smithsonian Magazine — the official publication of the institution — and some hawkeyes within Fish and Wildlife zeroed in on what appeared to be feathers from a harpy eagle, which has been on the endangered species list since 1976.

It was about the same time that the bald eagle went on the list, but the bald eagle, usually a tad smaller as I understand, wasn’t quite as endangered. Still, the same penalties can apply.

The harpy, which weighs close to 20 pounds with a wingspread of seven feet, spends its time in the tropical forests from southeastern Mexico to northern Argentina, feasting on sloths, monkeys and reptiles.

The bald eagle — one of the species visits occasionally near my yard on the shores of Stoney Creek up here in North County — can have a wingspan of seven feet as an adult. It feeds on dead fish and small animals, rarely birds. It is also known to steal fish from osprey, which are pretty darned good at angling.

Getting back to Mr. Small: Word is the vigilant Fish and Wildlife sleuths checked his collection out, sent some of it to a lab in Oregon, and yes, there were some feathers from a harpy.

But that doesn’t mean case closed. Much depends on how one comes into possession of something from an endangered species and when — before inclusion on the endangered list, possession is less of a crime — plus other circumstances. Yet it’s not pleasant to be found in possession of such contraband. Just ask me.

Deep in Baldy Doo-Doo
It was in the ’70s, when I was the outdoor editor of the Evening and Sunday Sun, and I was in Canada researching a series on depredation of crops by waterfowl, primarily geese, on the fields of farmers. Accompanying me was the late Reese Layton, an old-timer from Brooklyn (Maryland not New York) because I desired company while driving the hinterlands of Western Canada, which can be mighty hostile and lonesome in February.

I had completed my interviews when we reached civilization, Winnipeg. We spent much of a day in the Natural History Museum there, then decided to go shopping at a Hudson Bay Store, which to Canadians at the time was what Sears is to Americans.

I bought some fishing tackle that I hadn’t seen stateside, and Reese bought a few souvenirs. Then he spied in the bargain department a full Indian headdress. The price was marked down to a bit over a hundred dollars because a few feathers were mangled. He wanted it.

I was familiar with the relatively new Endangered Species Act and told him to forget it. Canada had not yet got in on the endangered species concept, obviously with eagles at least, so the headdress was legal there. But not back in the good old USA.

I also reminded him there was no way a full headdress could be packed securely for commercial flight. Many more feathers would be crushed, and the war bonnet would appear to have been through King Phillip’s War.

Reese dug for his billfold. He still wanted it, though he paused when I told him it couldn’t be brought back into the U.S. I told him of the fine, the possibility of jail, and I reminded him he was traveling with me. If he was caught, I could kiss my job goodbye. The wallet went back into his pocket, and we meandered about looking for other goodies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always by Reese’s side.

So a few days later, we’re flying home. As we landed at the border, there was quite a fuss in the airport. We were told a big drug bust was in progress, that we’d have to have all our luggage scrutinized.

“See,” I said to Reese. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t buy that headdress?”

He looked sheepish, then said, “I did.”

“Where is it,” I demanded.

Said he, “I thought your sleeping bag [which I always took when doing the hinterlands] would protect the feathers.”

As I stood by my baggage, waiting for a customs agent to watch me unload everything within my luggage, I thought of the unemployment line, a fine higher than the cost of my home, and I wondered what the menu was in the jailhouse. There were a hundred or more eagle feathers in that bonnet. Reese didn’t look so perky either.

As our luck would have it, we got the chief U.S. agent, who asked where I had been, what I had been doing and such. I told him I was a newspaperman and had been working on a series about geese.

“A newspaperman,” he said. “Do you know Bud Leavitt [then the outdoor editor of the Bangor, Maine newspaper and a friend].”

“Yes,” I said.

“Bud hunts with me a lot,” he said. “I’ve got a place in Canada where we hunt grouse. You ought to come hunt with us.”

And then what did he do? He sat down, and right on my rolled-up sleeping bag with the headdress within. We talked hunting, goose woes and other outdoor talk, and all the time he’s atop the sleeping bag inches away from the eagle feathers. Time was running out for the flight connection. It was now or never.

“Well,” I said, “I guess you better check our baggage,” adding, “and I’ll be seeing you in the fall when grouse season comes.”

“No need to check your luggage,” he said. “No friend of Bud Leavitt’s and a writer for the Baltimore Sun needs checking. Go on, and don’t forget to bring your sleeping bag when you come for grouse. It gets cold at camp.”

So often since then I’ve thought of the words of Edgar Y. Harburg, who in “Bloomer Girl” wrote We gotta be free, The eagle and me.

The eagle and me were home free, but even now when I occasionally see the live eagle that stops by Stoney Creek in the spring, I keep my distance. Reese is long gone, but I don’t even wonder whatever happened to the headdress. I have seen more than enough of it and all eagle feathers to suit me.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly