Birds With Benefits: How Eagles Are Helping Dairy Farmers in Western Washington | Civil Eats

Birds With Benefits: How Eagles Are Helping Dairy Farmers in Western Washington

Bald eagles and other raptors clean up fields for free and scare off pest birds like starlings. “You support the wildlife, the wildlife supports you,” one farmer says.

A bald eagle about to take flight.

A bald eagle about to take flight. (Photo credit: Sarah Boccolucci / Getty images)

If given the opportunity, a group of bald eagles can clean up a cow carcass in a day. While raptors and farmers in many parts of the world have fraught relationships, many dairy farmers in western Washington state welcome the eagles for the services they provide, according to a new study.

Karen Steensma is a dairy farmer and biologist in Whatcom County, just a few miles south of the border between the United States and Canada. Her family’s dairy, with about 200 milking cows, is one of 78 farms that lie in front of the Cascades, a swath of undulating green fields punctuated by barns, farm stands, and cheese shops.

The area is also teeming with eagles, especially during the winter, when they swarm the fields to snack on salmon that migrate up the Nooksak River and its tributaries to spawn. Steensma’s farm, which has been running since the 1980s, is no exception. As a biologist and appreciator of wildlife in general, she enjoys seeing the raptors perched on high branches and hay bales.

“I’ve lived on this farm for more than 40 years, my husband for nearly his entire life,” Steensma said. “We’ve been happy to witness eagle populations growing from almost non-existent to commonplace. It’s a privilege to be able to see those white heads against the blue sky when they perch in the tops of our trees, have our children grow up waking to the chirping of eagles outside their windows, and know that we’re providing habitat.”

“It’s a privilege to be able to see those white heads against the blue sky when they perch in the tops of our trees… and know that we’re providing habitat.”

But eagles and other raptors have not always been welcomed by farmers. Those with small livestock or birds, or even cherished barn cats, worry about eagles carrying off animals.

Ethan Duvall, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, wanted to find out how Washington dairy farmers feel about the eagles that swarm their fields each winter. Duvall published a pair of recent studies on eagles and agriculture in Whatcom County exploring that relationship.

In the first study, Duvall examined how the availability of salmon changed bald eagles’ wintering behavior; he found when fewer salmon were available to eat, bald eagles hung out on dairy farms instead.

Building off that finding, in the latest study, Duvall, Steensma—who is also a biologist at Trinity Western University—and their colleagues spoke with 20 dairy farmers in Whatcom County about their experiences with eagles. The survey revealed that, contrary to some assumptions, having bald eagles perched on your farm can be a good thing.

Eagles scare off pest birds and help clean up carcasses and placenta, the surveyed farmers reported. Farmers in turn provide eagles some supplemental snacks if the salmon are running low and, at a more fundamental level, they provide fields instead of pavement—despite ever-increasing pressures to develop. From these farmers’ perspectives, protecting one helps the other.

“You support the wildlife, and the wildlife support you.”

“You support the wildlife, and the wildlife support you,” Steensma said.

All the farmers surveyed viewed the eagles as either neutral or a net benefit for the farm. And those who viewed them as a benefit felt strongly about it.

“It has been a challenging issue, for much of human history, having human agriculture co-exist with apex predators,” Duvall said. “So, for us to now take this case study and learn from it, and figure out how we can best share these spaces, is exciting.”

Birds with Benefits

The primary benefit the new study discusses is the cleanup service bald eagles provide; eagles are scavengers, after all, and farmers make use of that fact. On a dairy farm with 365 cows, Steensma explained, there might be a birth about every day. With each birth comes a placenta and other natural byproducts, and not all births end well, so dairy farmers occasionally have to dispose of stillborn calves.

There are services that will remove the materials for a fee, but unless it’s a large cow, most farmers simply place the materials in a part of the farm that’s far enough away from sensitive areas like water sources, roads, or neighbors and let nature run its course. Eagles, along with vultures and coyotes, will eat a placenta in just a few hours, Steensma said. A calf, they will dismantle in a day.

“Death is a fact of life,” Steensma said. “It’s so sad, but it’s a part of nature. So why not let some of the nutrients go back to the ground and to the wildlife?”

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By putting out placentas and stillborn calves, Duvall posits, dairies can provide an extra source of food in the winter when salmon counts are low. Kyle Spragens, a wildlife biologist at the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, pointed out that while salmon are certainly an important part of eagles’ diets, they have been known to hunt waterfowl when salmon aren’t as plentiful and have flexible diets. Dairies could provide a short-term supplement, but he did not think that they would be a critical source of food all winter long.

In the U.S., your view on eagles likely depends on what you’re farming. For farms with small livestock or fowl, bald eagles can pose real threats.

Eagles offer farmers more than cow clean-up. Eating salmon and other carcasses, including cows, could help reduce the spread of disease in the area. Eagles also help deter smaller species that sometimes act as pests, like starlings, which can arrive in massive flocks, roost in barns, and gobble up corn and other grains and seeds during the chilly months.

“We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars’ worth of damage across the U.S.,” Steensma said. “It’s one of the major [wildlife] conflicts here.”

Migratory waterfowl like snow geese, trumpeter swans, and ducks can also cause problems for dairy farmers. They swoop through western Washington by the hundreds of thousands every winter, when the fields are wet and cover crops are vulnerable to trampling and uprooting.

“If you’ve planted a cover crop and you’re trying to conserve soil on a field, or if you have grass seedlings poking out, and thousands of birds stay on your field for a number of days, that cover crop is gone,” Steensma said. “If you put [a stillborn calf] out where you know it’s going to attract eagles, that can help the trumpeter swans say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to hang out here that long’” because of the eagles’ presence.”

Still, growing eagle populations haven’t made everyone happy. In the U.S., your view on eagles likely depends on what you’re farming. For farms with small livestock or fowl, bald eagles—typically scavengers, like vultures—can pose real threats.

In Georgia, for instance, an organic chicken farmer lost tens of thousands of chickens over just a few years due to predation by eagles. In Idaho, a pair of eagles took out 54 lambs. And because bald and golden eagles are federally protected, farmers often resent watching an apex predator pick off their livelihood with no repercussions, even if they appreciate the birds in a big-picture sense.

“They just feel helpless, and it’s a huge financial hit,” Steensma said. “It can come out of nowhere.”

But beef and dairy farms, which mostly have large livestock, are less vulnerable to predation by eagles. “If you’re in a different agricultural setting with a mix of dairy farms and poultry farms, that adds complexity. You have winners and losers,” said Duvall.

Of the farmers surveyed, Steensma said, “They all pretty much said, ‘I have no conflict with eagles’ That’s pretty impressive.” Although, as Steensma pointed out, the farmers who appreciate the birds may simply be more willing to speak with researchers (and the press).

An Innate Sense of Ecology

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While Duvall was pleasantly surprised by the results of the research, Steensma felt the survey accurately reflected what they’ve learned from decades of working with dairy farmers in the region. Jay Gordon, a dairy-turned-beef farmer in southwestern Washington who serves as the policy director for the Washington State Dairy Federation, agreed.

“I wasn’t surprised so many producers shared the same sentiments I did,” Gordon said. “It’s just part of the ecosystem and the landscape around the dairy farm, and some beef farms.”

“A lot of farmers understand how nature works with them, and they want to work with nature because it makes their farm better and more profitable,” Steensma added. Some ranchers in other states who know placenta and carcasses draw the eagles lean into it, using it as an opportunity to lead birding tours, Duvall said.

Agricultural communities across western Washington are looking for ways to supplement their agricultural income, like with birding and increasing agritourism, as high operational costs, rising land prices, and development pressure have been eating away at small family dairy farms in the area for decades.

“A lot of farmers understand how nature works with them, and they want to work with nature because it makes their farm better and more profitable.”

“Since about the mid-1960s, we’ve been losing roughly half our dairy farms every ten years,” Gordon said. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we had about 1,800 dairies in the state. Today, we’re essentially down to about 250, maybe 280, farms.”

Ecology-minded farmers like Steensma and Gordon view the continuation of farms and fields as providing a critical environmental service, staunching the spread of pavement and urban sprawl. The California dairy farm Steensma grew up on is now “covered in warehouses,” she recalled sadly, and she seemed loath to see the same thing happen in Whatcom.

The next steps for Duvall could be looking beyond Whatcom and dairy farms; what works there doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere in the state, let alone in other parts of the country and on different farms. “If this was a poultry-dominated setting, we’d have a totally different story,” he said. “There’s so much context specificity, but I think we can still learn from this and understand there are win-win scenarios.”

Recalling her own experience growing up on a farm in California, Steensma added, “My sense is that a lot of farm kids grow up with an innate sense of ecology, even if they don’t call it that.” If they stay in farming as adults, they carry that sense with them and use it to guide their own decisions. In Whatcom, that might mean welcoming the eagles.

Rebecca Dzombak is a science writer and editor covering the natural world, past, present and future, with a special interest in conservation, ecology, and agriculture. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, Scientific American, Science News and more. Read more >

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