Harris was initially pleased by this development. Top predators have long played an important role in nature. Wolves and cougars once put pressure on bison to keep moving over long ranges of land, and he says, “There was never overgrazing because the predators were behind the animals pushing them on, giving the land naturally a chance to rest.” Harris mimics that cycle of rotation and rest in his own pastures, and he believed that the bald eagles might be similarly beneficial. Predators often take the easiest prey available, weeding slow or sick animals from a flock. The eagles became his cleanup crew. When people asked about the situation, he had a little sales pitch: “You’ll never get a sick chicken from White Oak Pastures, because a bald eagle will get it first.”
That was back when Harris had only a few eagles. They kept coming. The numbers seemed to double every year. Half a dozen eagles, a dozen, two dozen. By late 2015, when the leaves had fallen from the trees and the northern migration had arrived south, bald eagles hung on the branches of Harris’s trees like Christmas ornaments. Counting eagles on the farm became a local sport. The record that year was almost 80 at one time.
Wildlife photographers were welcomed out to take pictures. In one image, three juvenile eagles are sparring in flight, their talons bared, their wings stretched, the head of a dead chicken floating in the air among them. By this time, Harris had realized he had a problem. The eagles were killing thousands of his chickens. How many exactly? That was unclear. He knew he needed to stop it, but what do you do about a bald-eagle infestation? Nobody in Bluffton had ever heard of such a thing.
Harris is an idealist, the kind of all-natural farmer whose cows finish on grass, whose birds run free, whose goats and sheep transform overgrown land. His faith in biodiverse, sustainable methods has only been affirmed by his multimillion-dollar annual revenues. And not that he would, but shooting a bald eagle is punishable by a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. Whatever was to be done about the eagles, Harris’s farm would work with nature, not fight against it. But as he would discover, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
“Now, you know John Muir said: In nature, when you pull a string, you see that everything’s connected?” Harris lamented to me later. “This is a good example of that.”
Harris is hardly the first farmer to have a bald-eagle problem. In various newspaper accounts from around the turn of the 20th century, you can find our national bird making “great depredations upon chickens and ducks,” poultry farmers “at their wits’ ends” and “pigs, calves, goats and lambs … killed in large numbers by the birds.” In 1917, bald eagles were considered such a scourge in Alaska that the government sponsored a bounty of 50 cents a bird, later increasing it to a dollar; this led to more than 120,000 confirmed kills. An unsigned editorial in the state’s Douglas Island News in 1920 explained: “Sentimentally, [the bald eagle] is a beautiful thing, but in life it is a destroyer of food and should be and is killed wherever found.” The author added that while lions are the emblem of England, they “are not met walking along the Strand in London.”
By the 1970s, though, there was an entirely different bald-eagle problem: In the lower 48, all but a few hundred were presumed dead, killed off not by trigger-happy farmers but by DDT. The chemical wasn’t designed to kill eagles, of course. DDT was once a celebrated innovation, a miracle compound that could fix farms and save lives. When Paul Müller was given a Nobel Prize in 1948 for discovering the chemical’s ability to kill insects, a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences described Müller as a “benefactor of mankind” and compared him to St. Francis of Assisi — a great lover of nature, often depicted with a bird perched peacefully in his hands.
From its postwar headquarters in Georgia, the Communicable Disease Center (later to become the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) dispersed DDT millions of times throughout the Southeast, effectively eliminating malaria in the United States. Farmers found plenty of use for it, too. Clouds of horn flies were wiped clean from cattle herds. Apple orchards were purged of the codling moth. These insecticidal triumphs, we now know, had unintended consequences. Rain and irrigation carried DDT from fields into creeks, rivers, deltas, bays. Snails and bivalves, the filter feeders that hug the murky bottom, absorbed the chemical before being consumed by fish. Those small fish would be eaten by bigger and bigger fish until a bald eagle swooped down from above, plucking its dinner from the water.
As DDT climbed each rung of this ladder, the chemical accumulated exponentially, a process known as biomagnification. Bald eagles and other top avian predators were getting the largest, most concentrated dose of any animal in the food chain. The chemical didn’t necessarily kill the birds that consumed it, but it had the odd effect of making their eggshells thinner — so thin, in fact, that they would break when an eagle sat down to incubate her young.
The destruction wrought by DDT helped start the environmental movement. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, passed the year after DDT was banned, extended protection to animals including the bald eagle and provided crucial funding for their management and recovery. In this way, the bald eagle came to embody another kind of idea, becoming a symbol for the plight of endangered species, a poster animal for the havoc wrought by industrial chemicals, a victim of our flawed, unnatural ways.
Starting in 1979, eaglets bred in captivity were released from the top of a man-made tower on Sapelo Island in Georgia. In this artificial nest, enclosed by bars, the young birds were fed for several weeks by staff members careful not to reveal their human presence. Once the birds were sufficiently feathered, the bars were opened, allowing the adolescent eagles to decide when they were ready to leave. This program, known as eagle hacking, expanded to two other locations in the state and continued through 1995. Though many factors contributed, the most recent census, conducted by helicopter, identified 201 successful eagle nests in Georgia.
On Harris’s farm, as the bald-eagle numbers rose, the bodies of dead chickens were beginning to accumulate. It’s obvious when an eagle has killed your bird: The chicken is laid out on her back, wings spread, legs intact, breast and organs devoured. (Like many of its fellow Americans, the bald eagle apparently prefers white meat.) When an eagle killed but did not eat the chicken, its long talons would leave an easy-to-recognize pattern of wounds. Often, though, the bird would leave no trace. The eagle would swoop down, pick up a chicken and fly off into the distance. One neighbor called to say he found dead chickens on his property. One was found on the windshield of a parked car, another hanging from a fence. Chickens were slipping from the talon grip of eagles and falling from the sky.
Among Harris’s more than 100 employees, none were troubled over the bald-eagle problem more than Dan Coady. Unlike Harris, Coady was not born into agriculture. After receiving a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin, he was hired to be a polymer chemist at I.B.M.’s prestigious Almaden lab in San Jose. During the course of his research at I.B.M., he got interested in solving health problems that he saw as originating in the food industry. Coady learned about food-security issues and became enamored with the ways holistic livestock management might reform modern agriculture. Harris hired him to manage his poultry operations in 2015. In Coady’s experience, chickens proved just as challenging as chemistry.
Coady was told about the bald eagles before he took the job, though he didn’t expect to spend much time worrying about them. At first, he tried to make them comfortable, a management decision he came to after carefully thinking through things logically: If a hungry eagle has killed a chicken but is scared off by a human before she can finish her meal, what will stop her from coming back? “If they were going to kill a chicken, I wanted them to sit down, get their fill and get out,” he says. “I didn’t want that bird to die and then another chicken to die because that eagle was still hungry.” It may not have been the best plan: The eagles became acclimated to Coady and his crew. He could stand within yards of a bald eagle without scaring it one bit.
His next idea was a net. It sounded simple enough: If the chickens were below a net, the bald eagles wouldn’t be able to swoop down and pick them up, right? Coady already put out small tarps for the birds, shade covers from the South Georgia elements. He tied the tan fabric to little metal posts near their water and feed. The chickens would huddle under them during the hot, bright hours of midday. Unfortunately, these small tarps did not make the chickens safer. As Coady says he observed on several occasions, the bald eagles learned to fly down, land on the ground and walk beneath the tarp. Once there, the eagle was free to select the most appetizing chicken, like a discerning customer at a meat counter.
A protective net, Coady reasoned, would need to be much larger. He considered the possibility. The farm is spread across a few thousand acres. An acre is roughly three-quarters the size of a football field. Could he cover a single acre with, say, a net 100 yards in length? The weight of such a net would make it sag to the ground, so it would need be lined with cables strong enough to lift it up. To lift such cables, he would need ratchets to pull them taut. Of course, the cables would need to be mounted to poles sunk deep enough in the ground to withstand the torque of the ratchets, not to mention the weight of the cables and net. And even then, you were talking about only one acre out of thousands. So, no, he determined, nets would not work.
Another idea was dogs. The farm already employs more than a dozen guard dogs — mostly Great Pyrenees — that Coady says are largely effective in deterring four-legged predators like coyotes and foxes. But those white, shaggy dogs seemed to have little ability or inclination to chase off the eagles. Dogs can be trained to deter birds of prey, but Coady seemed flummoxed at the prospect of finding such an animal. “Do you get that at PetSmart?” he says. “I mean, where do you find an eagle-chasing dog?”
To do anything more, the farm would need an eagle-depredation permit. The law does not merely prohibit the killing of bald eagles. Without a federal permit, it is illegal even to disturb an eagle. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service reviews such applications, which require thorough documentation to establish that your eagles have become “injurious to wildlife, agriculture or other personal property, or human health and safety.” Once obtained, a permit authorizes an arsenal of nonlethal deterrents — air horns, pyrotechnics, effigies, propane cannons, kites, scarecrows and so on — but it doesn’t come quick. The form instructions note: “Some applications may take longer than 90 days to process.”
As Coady dealt with the permit, Harris sought compensation for his losses. Tucked deep within the 2014 Farm Bill is a program — the Livestock Indemnity Program — that, in essence, buys dead animals. Of the $49 million paid out in 2015, a vast majority covered livestock lost in bad weather. Some of that money, though, covered attacks by protected animals reintroduced into the wild. If, say, a pack of timber wolves takes down a heifer on a range in Wyoming or a Florida panther pounces upon a goat in Collier County or a black buzzard pecks the eyes from a defenseless calf in Kentucky, the Livestock Indemnity Program will pay up to 75 percent of the dead animal’s market value. Benefits are capped at $125,000 a year per farm, and the farmer needs to be able to document that the reintroduced species was indeed the perpetrator. Otherwise, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said, how can the agency be sure it wasn’t some other animal killing the chickens?
The U.S.D.A. subtracts from this reimbursement something called a “normal mortality rate,” based on the proportion of animals that would have died before slaughter anyway. The rate varies depending on the animal and the state where it was raised. The rate for chickens in Georgia, for example, is set at 4 percent. But like most U.S.D.A. regulations, that rate is written for today’s conventional farms, where chickens are cloistered in climate-controlled houses and never exposed to the natural world. The Georgia State Farm Service Agency, which oversees claims in the state, had never considered a farm like Harris’s. The agency said it would have to revise the mortality rate. When it got back to him, the rate for free-range chicken farms had been set at 40 percent.
To say that Harris was offended is putting it lightly. Smaller, sustainable farms often butt heads with regulations they say are written for conventional producers and unnecessarily cumbersome to their practices. (Joel Salatin, an icon in the industry, wrote a book on the subject called “Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.”) Harris felt he was treated fairly in the past, but the assumption that 40 of every hundred of his chickens would die before ever reaching slaughter, even in the best conditions, read as something more than a misunderstanding between a farm and a state agency — it read as a wholesale indictment of his farming method. In a presentation to the Farm Service Agency, he called the figure “unfounded, and based on speculation rather than fact.” When discussing it in private, Harris did not use such polite words.
To accompany his argument, Harris marshaled a stack of peer-reviewed research and the U.S.D.A.’s own publications, which cited figures closer to, and sometimes below, 10 percent. The F.S.A. agreed to revise the figure to 18 percent, a decision that made Harris no happier. When discussing the rate, Harris repeatedly described it as “arbitrary” and “capricious,” which he acknowledged were the words his lawyer told him to use.
Last August, Harris’s application was rejected. A six-page letter outlining the decision acknowledged that bald eagles were observed killing chickens and went so far as to observe that “the loss was substantial” on Harris’s farm, but the agency explained that there was not enough evidence to determine a specific number of “confirmed” kills. “Due to the nature of this type of operation,” the letter read, such precise numbers would probably be impossible. Who was to say a neighbor’s dog didn’t get one of those chickens? Wasn’t it possible that a fox crept through the fences in the night?
Then, several weeks later, the F.S.A. withdrew its decision. That was in October. Despite Harris’s entreaties and paperwork filings and a steady campaign of emails written exclusively in capital letters, the agency has yet to deliver a new ruling. The unspoken tension in these negotiations is that conventional chicken farming solved the bald-eagle problem decades ago. It put the birds inside houses, dim places where a bald eagle never could (or would) go, and, in the process, snipped the last strings connecting them to nature.
Outside White Oak’s slaughterhouse last summer, Coady picked me up, turned down Highway 27 and drove toward a pasture where he had some chickens a bit shy of full weight, just the size that the eagles like. The northern migration had already sent most of the birds away for the year, but he expected we would still see plenty of eagles there.
As we drove among the verdant summer pastures, a snub-nosed revolver sat on the dash of Coady’s pickup. It looked like a Saturday-night special. The only difference was a red cap on the end of the short barrel.
Coady pulled his truck through a gate into the pasture. All around were red-feathered chickens, pecking and scratching, oblivious to our presence. As Coady had suspected, in the high branches of a pine above, a bald eagle was looking down at the chickens hungrily. Its silhouette was unmistakable.
Coady snatched the six-shooter off the dash, pointed it at the eagle and pulled the trigger.
The pistol produced a low poof, a thin trail of smoke and, after a moment’s hesitation, a loud pop. The shot resembled a bottle rocket, the kind of thing you would light to celebrate the Fourth of July. The farm’s eagle-depredation permit had come in, and the pistol, I learned, had been loaded with Bird Bangers, a kind of pyrotechnic designed to scare birds without harming a feather. The shot didn’t get anywhere near the eagle, but the illusion of danger was enough to spook the bird. It spread out its wings and flew away. The chickens didn’t even seem to notice.
After the first eagle was pointed out, I began to see more silhouettes in the distance, sharp beaks in the sun. What to make of these feathered beasts? I wondered. Were they noble predators, a fitting symbol of national pride? Were they fragile victims, asking to be protected from our unnatural ways? Were they something more inscrutable — ambiguous threads in Muir’s tangled web?
Maybe it is not such a mistake to see ideas in an eagle. There’s an old story, almost certainly apocryphal, about them circling a battlefield and making a ruckus during the Revolutionary War. The patriots were inspired, the story goes, because they believed the eagles were joining their cry for freedom. True or not, stories like this get told over and over again because we want to believe these animals aren’t void of meaning, that they have a message for us, that they can tell us something only they know about our national destiny. Then again, maybe they’re just birds.
Whatever they were, the Bird Bangers seemed to work on them. The eagles could be made to behave, it seemed, so long as someone was in the field waiting to pull the trigger every minute of every day.
Just then, another eagle appeared over the tree line, soaring down toward the chickens. It was a magnificent sight, broad wings gliding wide through the air. Coady pointed the gun up at the sky and pulled the trigger again. Poof. Pop. The eagle changed course, retreating into the American distance.