For generations, bald eagles have flocked to the northwest corner of Washington state during winter, feasting on the dead chum salmon that washed up along the waterways. However, climate change is forcing these majestic creatures to adapt to a new food source: dairy farm discards.
Once the rivers and streams of the region were abundant with salmon, who would spawn and die, providing a rich source of food for the local ecosystems, including bald eagles. However, due to climate change, salmon are now spawning earlier as rivers and streams have warmed. Winter high waters are also occurring at different times, resulting in the salmon carcasses being swept downstream, rendering them no longer an easy food source for the eagles.
Ethan Duvall, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, has been studying these eagles for over a decade. He fondly recalls the incredible sight of over 600 eagles congregating along the Nooksack River. However, as the number of eagles along the river began to drop, Duvall investigated and discovered the impact of climate change on their food supply.
In response to the diminishing salmon population, bald eagles have turned to the rich dairy farms of western Washington and southern British Columbia in Canada. Dairy cattle regularly give birth, resulting in a constant supply of placentas and stillborn calves for disposal. When farmers place these remains in their fields, eagles have found a new feasting area.
According to Karen Steensma, a professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, the dismantling of a carcass occurs in about 48 hours, with coyotes coming in at night and eagles during the day. This new arrangement has proven beneficial for both eagles and farmers. The eagles help clean up the fields and deter birds and rodents that might contaminate or consume feed stores. Meanwhile, the eagles gain a valuable food source at the peak of winter when they typically face the highest rates of mortality.
Duvall expressed hope that this study will inspire farmers, wildlife managers, and conservationists to collaborate in finding ways to maximize benefits for both humans and wildlife in shared spaces. The findings, published in the journal Ecosphere, highlight the incredible adaptability of these apex predators.
As climate change continues to affect ecosystems around the world, it’s important to recognize the resilience of wildlife and learn from their adaptability. So, what can we do to help protect our planet and its incredible biodiversity?
Start by reducing your carbon footprint, supporting sustainable practices, and advocating for policies that address climate change. By working together, we can create a future that benefits both people and wildlife.
It’s time to take action and follow the example of the bald eagles. Let’s adapt to the challenges we face, embrace new solutions, and work together to create a more sustainable world for all its inhabitants.
This article by Nicholas Vincent was first published by OneGreenPlanet on 23 March 2023.
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