Welcome to the News section of the iNSiGHT Ornithology website (
www.simoncherriman.com). This blog contains updates about various things I've been up to, interesting environmental issues and observations I make regularly while going about my day. It is designed to be fun AND educational, and inspire you about our wonderful natural world. Happy reading!

Friday, 15 June 2018

Eagles Die Hard but Old Habits Do Not

This Wedge-tailed Eagle was satellite-tracked from Perth to the Pilbara and died of injuries (chopped wing feathers) suspected to have been sustained following a collision with an aircraft or drone.

The news has been spreading like wildfire so you're probably well aware about the mass-culling of over 130 Wedge-tailed Eagles in East Gippsland, Victoria. This isn't the first case of suspected raptor poisoning in East Gippsland, with several White-bellied Sea Eagles testing positively to organochlorine last August. Since this recent story was released last week, ongoing publicity around the issue has sparked debates about eagles, lambs and what should be done when wild animals protected by legislation come into conflict with human interests.

There are a number of points that need clarifying (as always is the case, because of the simplification that often comes with rapid and concise communication), so I felt the need to post this update to offer a resource that can hopefully prevent the evolution of more myths (huh, one can only try! In fact, read all the freely available information on my websites, which might cull 130+ myths. Legally, of course). I have researched eagles for over two decades, during which time I have been fortunate to be mentored by some of the world's leading experts on this group of amazing raptors, and while I certainly don't know everything there is to know about their biology (the eagles, not the experts), I am amazed by how little of the basic information many people seem to know, and by the speculation and sheer lack of environmental understanding demonstrated this past week!

Firstly, 130+ eagles were not culled last week. The news was made public last week, but this is clearly an example of ongoing, systematic persecution which has involved culling birds over a period of several years. So, questions like "why were so many eagles in one place at once?" and "how did someone kill so many so quickly?" can be put to bed.

Secondly, people have again started debating whether or not eagles kill lambs. This issue is discussed more deeply in a very well-balanced piece published by Australian Geographic late last week, including immensely valuable comments from leading Australian raptor biologist Dr. Stephen Debus. Key points discussed here are:

- eagles are mammalian predators capable of killing lambs, but repeatedly evidence has suggested they are rarely the prime cause of deaths, which are more often attributable to foxes, crows, poor weather and mismothering.
- even in cases where eagle predation is documented, the costs of having them taking some potentially viable lambs are far outweighed by the benefits these predatory birds deliver through predation of pest species, and removal of disease-harbouring carrion.
- no economic impacts to the sheep industry have ever been proven to be caused by eagles.
- there are many alternative solutions to culling or 'legal' (i.e. with a permit) killing (read on!).

To clarify an important ecological point regarding the behavioural differences in the two broad 'types' of Wedge-tailed Eagle present in our landscape (1: sedentary, breeding adults, and 2: nomadic, non-breeding juvenile/immature birds), I responded on Tuesday to interest from The Conversation who published this article that I co-wrote with one of their editors. Breeding adults may occasionally take lambs (viable or otherwise) as nesting food, but this is rare and smaller vertebrates are preferred. Juvenile eagles are drawn to abundant prey sources and can sometimes accumulate in larger concentrations (dozens or more). Such birds may simultaneously attack larger animals, which can be perceived as 'pack hunting', but there is no evidence these attacks are coordinated. It is these birds which seem to have mostly been the target of the recent cull. I also published this article to raise awareness about the potential impacts to the population of a native predator that, as my recent satellite-tracking research has confirmed, can in its juvenile dispersal phase move such enormous distances. This means:

- EAGLES CULLED in East Gippsland could essentially be born ANYWHERE in Australia.
- ecological sinks created by humans are never a good thing, but to think the Gippsland one could be responsible for deaths of eagles born near you, wherever your Australian residence may be, is deeply concerning.

Then in an update published yesterday, we heard a response from a Victorian Farmers Federation spokesperson, who made this comment regarding potential unethical situations lambs face if attacked by eagles: "it's not a pleasant death for the lamb, it's fairly horrific." This prompted me to post a video response on my Twitter and Instagram pages to emphasise the point that, if we are talking about animal welfare here, it should be made a much more urgent priority to cull the live export industry, rather than a native predator!!

Although it was published on Tuesday, this update from The Weekly Times only came to my attention this morning. And this quote from it is what grabbed me the most:

"... governments and community needed to do more than just throw up their arms in horror."

I couldn't agree more. What cases like this recent mass-culling event do is highlight that there is clearly a problem (be it perceived or real), and they open a door towards potential growth and change, which is always required to find a solution (it is normally growth in our mindset that is most often necessary).

'We need to either issue farmers with permits to control [eagles], or the community compensates farmers for their (lamb) losses,' Mr Vallance said. 'Farmers are keen to preserve wildlife, but when they come into excess it really does change things.'"

This is one potential solution, but it is short-sighted and does not change the fact that since it was forced onto the Australian landscape, extensive pastoralism centralised around the production of a few species has and always will create all sorts of ecological issues.

As I stated in the Australian Geographic article quoted above:

"What often happens with pastoralism is we simplify ecosystems so every part of the landscape has economic value. We clear land, put sheep in and only focus on keeping animals that benefit us. But we need to focus on biodiversity conservation. This means having a huge diversity of animals in a landscape regardless of their economic value, because the more diverse the ecosystem is, the less likely it is that native predators will kill domestic livestock."

"Retaining large patches of native vegetation that can support a diverse range of animals that offer alternative prey to livestock, such as kangaroos, possums and birds, is one way of solving these problems [and one way of solving many other problems too!]. We simply can't clear all of the land, kill the kangaroos and rabbits, and expect these majestic eagles to eat dust."

A greater understanding of how this continent and its vast assortment of unique, amazing wildlife eats, sleeps, breathes, moves and changes, and a mindset that takes these facts into consideration when deciding what actions we humans take as its current custodians, its clearly what is needed to resolve any/all of the environmental issues that present themselves. Which leads me to my final point, stemming from this quote in The Weekly Times' article:

"... the horrific drought in NSW was likely to be driving Wedge-tailed Eagles off the western plains and on to southern sheep properties [a good ecological explanation and one that is likely, but still speculative without evidence of cause and effect]. 'It’s likely to be a short-term thing for farmers and once they get five inches of rain out on the swamps of NSW they’ll go back where they came from,' Mr Vallance said."

New South Wales and Victoria might be rivals over sporting events or for other anthropocentric reasons, but Australia's ecosystems and their components do not recognise a few lines placed on a map 230 years ago. So the connotations associated with comments about eagles coming from NSW as though they are foreigners invading a state boundary need to be culled. If apex predators did recognise any 'borders' then it would be those created by the land management actions of Aboriginal Australians tens of thousands of years ago, which (mostly through fire) created the diversity of ecosystems that Westerners first saw in 1788. And in order to grow (or 'move forward', as they say in the corporate world!) in the most urgently needed way, we need to turn back the clock, put all our fuel onto the fire of reconciliation with the First Australians, and use the natural history of this country to rebuild the cultural and economic framework that is rapidly weakening.

To listen to an interview I did with Richelle Hunt on ABC Radio Afternoons in Melbourne, click here and scroll forward to 1h 30mins.

To listen to more about eagles, lambs and biodiversity, visit this ABC Radio Gippsland's Drive podcast and scroll forward to 2h 30mins.

A bird's eye view gives valuable insights into better ways of custodianship.

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