Beloved Gabriola Island bald eagle dies from electrocution

The bald eagle, named Junior, is believed to have been electrocuted by a B.C. Hydro wire.

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A young bald eagle raised alongside an adopted hawk and watched by thousands of people all over the world has been electrocuted.

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Junior, as the bird was known to the nearly 4,000 members of the Gabriola Rescue of Wildlife Society (GROWLS) eagle nestcam Facebook group, hadn’t been seen since Monday night. Its body was found later that evening by a neighbour who contacted GROWLS director Pam McCartney.

McCartney’s worst fears were confirmed when she saw the dead bird, which showed signs of being electrocuted.

“I knew right away it was him,” said an emotional McCartney on Friday.

The bird lay lifeless under the hydro wires, under a small transformer, with its “wings wide open facing up to the sky, and you can see the exit burn on both wings.”

GROWLS monitors 16 active bald eagle nests on Gabriola Island. Last September, it installed its first eaglecam on Junior’s nest, not knowing the cameras would record an uplifting avian family drama that would capture the hearts of bird-lovers around the world.

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Junior and his unorthodox blended-bird family were in the spotlight earlier this summer after their nestcam captured one of the parent eagles dropping a baby hawk into the nest. The hawk, likely meant to be food for Junior’s dinner, ended up being a family member — and Junior, which had lost a sibling two weeks earlier, was the first one to welcome the new baby into the family, said McCartney.

“He accepted this little one that was supposed to be his food,” she recalled. “She came in as this fluffy, feathery cutie-patootie, and I think Junior thought, ‘My sibling is still alive.’ ”

The hawklet, later named Malala, meaning survivor, initially kept its distance. But when the eagle parents left, it approached Junior and was soon cuddling with it.

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“He was just so sweet,” said McCartney. “It was beautiful and acceptive and inclusive. He was a good big brother.”

Junior and Malala’s antics drew viewers to the eaglecam, which went from having a couple hundred mostly local viewers to an international audience of thousands. This week, many of them reacted with sadness and outrage over the death of the young raptor.

“You were a very special eagle to so many people,” wrote one member. “I will never forget the wonderful relationship you had with your hawklet sibling. I really enjoyed watching you both.”

Said another: “I had so been hoping that Junior would not have turned into one of the usual statistics. It is most difficult for a young eagle to reach adulthood.”

Junior’s death was a “reminder of how negative human impact affects the wild in the most tragic ways,” said McCartney.

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Some members of the group have embarked on a campaign urging B.C. Hydro to do more to prevent large birds from getting electrocuted in future.

This year, GROWLS has received four calls about electrocuted birds on Gabriola Island, including two eagles, one great blue heron and a wild turkey. The non-profit group had previously reached out to the hydro company about the wires four years ago after another fledgling from that same nest got zapped.

“The same parents have lost two babies to hydro,” said McCartney. “I feel frustrated because they haven’t done anything, and we’ve lost another eagle.”

A B.C. Hydro spokeswoman said the Crown corporation was sad to learn about the death of the eagle.

“We will work with GROWLS on Gabriola Island to find out what happened and see what can be done to prevent contacts,” said Susie Rieder.

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Hydro tries to prevent instances of wildlife and birds coming into contact with its infrastructure, which can cause a power outage, said Rieder.

The company builds perches and guards and installs diverters on power lines to reflect light and improve visibility in order to protect eagles from wires and other equipment.

McCartney said hydro had told her they will come assess the site next week. She is hopeful Junior’s death wouldn’t be in vain.

“This is giving them a kick in the butt they needed,” adding she is grateful hydro seems ready and willing to work to protect the birds.

According to Parks Canada, bald eagles aren’t considered at risk as their populations have recovered from the low numbers in the ’60s and ’70s.

However, eagles have a high mortality rate. Close to 50 per cent don’t survive their first year due to predation and other man-made hazards such as electrocution on power lines, collisions and lead poisoning.

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