Unalaska is the national hot spot for bald eagle attacks. Biologists and law enforcement officials agree: You’re more likely to be attacked by a bald eagle here than anywhere else in the country.
You are most likely to be attacked by a bald eagle in the post office parking lot.
Wildlife trooper Damian Lopez Plancarte has just escorted the first eagle victim of the season to the medical clinic. He pointed out the eagle perched on a nest.
“There were no eyewitnesses,” Plancarte said, describing the attack. “When she looked up, that eagle was just sitting there, like ‘I didn’t do it. You looking at me? No, I didn’t do it.’”
Nesting season for America’s national bird runs from early June to the end of the summer. Deputy Police Chief Jennifer Shockley is on the frontline of the island’s eagle response team.
“We have these signs that we put up every year to remind people that there are nesting eagles in the area,” Shockley said. “They will do whatever it takes to protect their young, and that typically includes launching themselves at people and using their talons to lacerate their heads.”
With seven-foot wingspans, flesh-ripping beaks and vice-like talons, eagles rule the island. But why are there annual eagle attacks in Unalaska when raptors and humans peacefully coexist elsewhere in the state?
It’s because of the interaction between two eagle needs: food and space.
“There’s a lot of food to support a lot of eagles,” Plancarte said. “But there’s not enough space in the small area where the food is to support that many nesting pairs.”
Fish are the staple of the bald eagle’s diet, and Unalaska processes more fish than any other port in the country. Boats, processors, and garbage create a year-round smorgasbord, which eagles want to nest as close to as possible.
But eagles usually nest in trees. Unalaska has no trees. Instead, eagles raise chicks on the tundra and cliff outcroppings. Their nests are a lot more accessible to people, which makes the eagles a lot more territorial.
“We actually have had to go in and chase some eagles off the playground equipment at the town park, because a couple of kids had been trapped inside,” Shockley said.
Shockley estimates six to 10 people a year seek medical attention for eagle encounters — usually head gashes from talons, which lead to stitches and expensive medical bills. But most Unalaskans remain pretty good-natured about the raptors next door.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Andres Ayures is a good example. On his third day in Unalaska, he was chased down the side of a mountain by a bald eagle.
“I thought for sure this eagle wanted to kill me,” Ayures said. “I’m thinking, one: ‘Oh heck no, I’m not going to die in Dutch Harbor.’ Two: ‘Oh, crap, I better start running.’”
The bird swooped at him repeatedly, ripped his hood off his head, and forced him to the ground. It even stole the cell phone that fell out of his pocket.
“As I was getting attacked, I was still admiring the eagle for being so majestic,” Ayures said. “It was a fantastic-looking eagle.”
Now, Ayures keeps an eagle figurine on his desk. When he’s re-stationed, it’s a piece of Unalaska he’ll hold on to — knowing that somewhere out there, an eagle with his cell phone is holding onto a piece of him, too.