Now the guys that raise sheep used to get antsy, actually, about the golden eagles when they ate up an occasional lamb, and althougth we now know predators are nice, the sheep guys did not know it then. Twenty, 30 years ago.
"You have got to stop shooting eagles," said Morlan Nelson, known as Morly, and by names as far less flattering than that in the old days by the wool growers.
"We're going to shoot you as well as the eagles," one of them told him.
Well, that was decades ago. Now the sheep growers endorse the protection of the great golden eagles and everybody is friends.
It's all very well to be virtuous when everybody rallies around and says you are a good boy -- it's something else when nobody else thinks you're worth killing.
Morly brought one of the golden eagles to town this week to show people at the Edison Electric Institute. They have been interested in him, and paying some of his bills, while he, for his part, has been doing wonders for them.
You think of electric corporations with their towers and wires and damn computers running all over the continent and you don't, as a rule, want to snuggle up.
Especially if you've heard the great eagles settle on their power poles and get fried the instant their great wings like arcs of living copper touch a couple of high-voltage wires.
Thanks partly to nelson, the electric folk say they have reduced eagle deaths by 96 percent. Morly told how.
He grew up in the Dakotas where as a lad he enjoyed shooting eagles and everything else that didn't wear shoes. "Didn't hit many eagles, but only because they're pretty smart birds," he observed. "I sure tried to."
But at the age of 12 he saw his first falcon, and found out you can hunt with them, and in no time he was sold on birds of prey. Like Paul on the Damascus Road, he flip-flopped from persecutor to protector.
In World War II he was a captain in a ski patrol in Europe. Once some bullets came at him in a rude way and grazed both sides of his neck closely enough to snap his dogtag chain. A near thing, but he wasn't hurt. (Later he was hit by a mortar and laid up a couple of years, but that doesn't alter his marvelous luck with the dogtag bullets).
He's been to Arabia, to help them with their falcons, and he's worked with the late Walt Disney on films about eagles and great birds of prey.
The electric companies of the West, to be quite fair, had nothing against eagles and had no desire to kill them. It's just that as land was put to civilized uses, the eagles' old stomping grounds shrank, and they took to the utility poles for landing perches and even for nest sites. Smaller birds have less trouble from electricity, but the eagle wingspread of seven or eight feet is great enough to reach high-voltage wires on both sides of the pole, and that was what doomed them.
Nelson was asked to figure something out if he could. He had power poles set up in his yard (in Idaho) with dummy wires, replicas of the poles and wires that were killing the eagles.
Next he climbed into an eagle nest and captured a pre-fledgling, for which he needed to sign his life away, of course, to obtain the required permits. He then trained the infant bird -- much easier than done -- and taught it to land on the dummy posts and wires. He filmed the landings, then studied them frame by frame to see precisely how the eagles landed. What they avoided, what they did not avoid.
At last he had an accurate picture of the problem and began devishing ways to insulate wires, separate them farther, set up guards to prevent eagles' touching them and so on. Not everything worked. Morly learned by doing.
There are a lot of power poles in the West. Fortunately, there is land in which the cover is so dense that eagles cannot catch their prey, and they therefore avoid such land. Other places are so bare that rabbits can't make a living, and again the eagles waste no time over land that cannot feed them. It is now possible to take samples: You make a circle 100 feet across and measure the plant growth. When it falls between certain limits, prey abounds and so do eagles. It's power poles on such land that you work on.
One of Morly's joys has been nesting platforms. It was long supposed the eagles would never accept a man-made nest site. But Morly worked it out -- you don't want too much shelter from the elements, but you need some protection from blazing sun on young birds. After some experiments he installed five nest platforms in five states, and within three weeks all were tenanted.
This has been so successful, he was saying, that details have been published for use in other continents.
"I'm 63 and I'm no beauty," he said when I met him. "Let's go sit in that room with the eagle, just the three of us, and it won't make any difference about me. The eagle will do all the talking that needs to be done. d
"I learned that once from a wool grower. He had been a tough one to crack, but he came up to me and said, 'Listen: just take that eagle around with you. You won't have to have fancy arguments. The eagle will do the talking for you.'"
The eagle, not yet 2 years old, still has white flecks in her head and some white in her tail. She loses the white and becomes solid copper-red when she reaches the age of 4. She sits either on Morly's arm or on a wooden block. She utters cries of apparent pleasure and playfulness when she meets somebody new. Possibly because of her 4 1/2-inch talons, she has not experienced mean people. She can turn her head upside down by twisting her neck in a startling way, and often regards you from the bottom up.
"You don't want her to land in your lap, that's the only thing," Morly said. "Might change your voice." (Ha-ha-ha.)
Well, sir, we yammered for a spell and Morly showed films of his work in training the eagle and devising safeguards for it. He said something again about not being all that much to look at, but I thought he looked fine, a very handsome guy, as a matter of fact. Great-lover quality, I'd say.
He's got luck and bravery and patience. It took him a lot of years to perfect his knowledge and technique in saving eagles. He made a lot of people mad along the way -- he once lit into Drew Pearson or Westbrook Pegler (newspaper columnists and scolds) he can't remember which, because they lacked sympathy for golden eagles. Brought him right around, too, whichever one it was.
It's not hard to shed a tear for an eagle. It's harder (because your steam gives out, and you enter the great drudgery phase which is not exciting or heroic) to prepare yourself, through intense observation and study, to do something really useful to the eagles. The longest way around is the shortest way home. Most successful lovers lear that. Pretty or not. The love that reverses doom for eagles doesn't take fancy talk or pearly teeth. Though bravery helps, patience helps, luck helps. The eagle -- listen, I wouldn't want to ruffle Morly's feathers if she was around.