Bald eagle welcome mat wearing out here?
Comeback of bald eagles is one of Pennsylvania's great wildlife success stories. Most are thrilled to see regal birds of prey winging through Lancaster County again. But for some farmers, eagles have become a threat.
About five years ago, when the majestic bald eagles started hanging out in creekside trees on his Providence Township farm, Jonas Esch and his family were excited.
"Now when you see an eagle, we want to tear them apart," Esch, 42, says.
Esch says he has lost between 500 and 1,000 free-range chickens to the birds of prey over the last two years. Also about 100 guineas and even a few fat Muscovy ducks.
"This year, we lost money for the first time in the chicken business," says a frustrated Esch, who was making a good profit selling the chickens through Lancaster Farm Fresh, a nonprofit organic farmers' co-op.
Esch has 11 children, and most of them have standing orders to tear down through the pasture yelling and waving arms whenever eagles are seen perched in the trees.
"We can see them swoop down, and we go chasing," says Esch, shaking his head. "By the time we get back, they're back doing the chasing."
Three border collies, too, are trained to try to flush the eagles.
But some of the chicken flocks are so far from the home and barn that it's no use.
"You can shoot a gun in the air and the hawks will fly, but not the eagles. They're so bold. They have no fear whatsoever."
Because of the ongoing raids, Esch did not raise turkeys for local Thanksgiving markets this year and is considering going to the considerable expense of putting his fowl in pens where he can keep a guard dog on watch.
"Yeah," he says, "they're a pretty bird when you see them flying, but, my goodness, I never dreamed they'd be such a problem."
Esch is not alone in now considering eagles -- one of the greatest wildlife comeback stories in Pennsylvania history -- a threat to local farmers' livelihoods.
An Amish woman who did not want to give her name says her family lost 200 to 500 open-air laying hens off of Route 372, east of Quarryville, a year ago to eagles and hawks.
"At $6.50 a chicken, that's an awful lot of money," says the woman. She says the problem went away once the family purchased a very vocal German shepherd to guard the field.
An Amish farmer near Strasburg, who enjoys seeing the eagles regularly, says an eagle carried off the family's Jack Russell terrier from their yard.
"I enjoy watching them. They're something to watch," he says.
But, he adds, "If they keep populating the way they are right now, they're going to be a nuisance."
An Amish farmer who lives on Haiti Road, near Quarryville, thinks local eagles already have crossed that threshold.
He says he has lost about 10 Muscovy ducks and chickens to eagles over the last two years.
His solution: either compensate farmers for their losses or allow marauding birds of prey to be shot.
"The law should be changed. I would think it more than fair to shoot if they are doing damage," he says.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, a fellow Amish farmer in Upper Leacock Township allegedly did just that.
Paul A. Zook has been charged by the Pennsylvania Game Commission with shooting an immature bald eagle and faces fines up to $5,000 and up to two years in jail, though observers think jail time unlikely.
According to Game Commission officers, Zook readily admitted to shooting the highly protected eagle, though he did not know it was an eagle and admitted to killing at least three red-tailed hawks previously.
These developments emerge as a startling cross-current to the wildly applauded restoration of bald eagles -- our national symbol -- in Pennsylvania.
Only 33 years ago, a mere three pairs of eagles nested in the state. But a concerted restoration program by the Game Commission took off.
In 2011, there were 217 nesting pairs -- nests doubled from 2006 to 2011.
Last year, the burgeoning eagle population met the Game Commission's parameters for being considered as recovered.
Lancaster and York counties, by virtue of the Susquehanna River, had 28 active nests in 2011, the highest concentration in the state.
Even more dramatic is the number of migratory eagles that are flocking to Lancaster County in the fall and winter months, drawn by ample sources of fish and, some say, manure spread on farm fields mixed with poultry parts.
The county is a magnet for eagles heading north from as far south as Florida as they disperse after nesting. At the same time, in November and December, northern eagles are fleeing south as favored waterways freeze.
Then, by December, our resident eagles are rebuilding nests for another year.
"There are always eagles in Lancaster County," says Doug Gross, the Game Commission's endangered and nongame birds section supervisor.
On the morning of Nov. 17, Strasburg birdwatcher Tom Raub counted 40 eagles perched in trees near the Esbenshade Turkey Farm outside of Strasburg.
Local birdwatchers conducting winter raptor surveys by driving through the countryside in recent weeks totaled 61 bald eagles. Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area staff observed 11 immature and two mature bald eagles on Jan. 7, possibly the most eagles ever spotted there on a single count.
And this at a time when many migratory eagles gathering here this fall already have left the area.
None of this surprises Stephen Mohr, a former Game Commissioner who in 1998 predicted to his fellow commissioners that eagles would one day would become a problem.
"In 1998 when I made that statement, they laughed at me," Mohr says. "I said that's how fast they are going to recover. I just know when you give something total protection, that's how it goes."
Mohr, of Bainbridge, thinks the time has come for farmers to be compensated for damages to their livelihood by eagles.
He notes that the state Department of Agriculture pays sheep farmers for damages caused by coyotes and dogs, so why not eagles?
"I'm in favor of the eagles," he emphasizes. "Every day we see them on the river. When they're sitting in a tree, you almost feel like standing up and saluting them.
"But it's not right that we all enjoy seeing them but we don't pay anything for their upkeep. Hell, even when you go to the zoo, you pay an admission fee.
"There should be some agency responsible for reimbursing these people for documented losses.
"Many of the same people that like to watch these eagles soaring around are demanding free-range chickens and ducks and grass-fed fowl for their table fare. So there's a price to pay for that."
So, are eagles about to become a perennial problem in the Garden Spot?
No, says Gross. He says he has not received direct evidence of eagles causing livestock damage in the state.
"I don't know if that is happening or not," he says. "I have heard that bald eagles are feeding on waste products spread on fields."
Gross says eagles eat mainly fish in winter but are well known to scavenge carcasses, including fowl.
If there are assaults on live fowl locally, part of the solution, he says, is to stop spreading material on fields that include poultry parts.
Gross says he doesn't know of any states that compensate owners of livestock for damages by eagles. And he says the state is bound to aggressively protect eagles under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
"We would encourage the use of preventive measures on the part of the owner.
"A lot of birds of prey die of starvation, you know. They just can't go to McDonald's. I think it's up to the landowner to protect their livelihood without taking birds that belong to all of us.
"I see raptors as ambassadors to urbanites. Where else do city folk get to see wildlife? There is a lot of anti-predator attitudes. So we're trying to stand firm and educate the public about the value of raptors and the great history of the return of the bald eagle."
Ad Crable is a Sunday News outdoors writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.