Young eagles flock to the landfill drive-thru

A second-year eagle is fitted with a transmitter that uses a GPS to track flight patterns.

A second-year eagle is fitted with a transmitter that uses a GPS to track flight patterns.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a young bald eagle soaring through the sky, scouring for a nice meal down below. You could hold out for fresh prey to skitter by. But your hunting skills aren’t quite up to snuff, and hey, look! All your eagle friends are hanging out around a massive overflowing bowl of potential food in the middle of the landscape not too far off. So, of course, you’re going to fly over for a quick bite.

And so it is that landfills — those large sources of easy food for wildlife — are supplementing the diets of our national symbol of freedom in the Chesapeake Bay region, according to a study by the Center for Conservation Biology, a research unit shared by Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary. The results of the study that tracked the patterns of 64 eagles at 72 regional landfills were recently published in the Journal of Raptor Research.

Some of the data surprised researchers. “We thought eagles would use landfills more during the winter when there is less food available, but that didn’t turn out to be the case,” said Bryan Watts, Ph.D., director at the center and Mitchell A. Byrd Professor of Conservation Biology. What was not surprising, though: Young eagles really like going to the landfill drive-thru — a lot.

“We’ve done a lot of observations along the James River and what you’ll see is that the young eagles are trying to steal prey from older eagles,” Watts said. Basically, they are looking for a quick, easy meal while honing their hunting skills. Instead of swooping down on prey, they pirate, beg and scavenge. The landfills are a gold mine.

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