Eagle's First Flight By Don Monkerud

Like watching a baby take its first step, the golden eagle's vitality, wildness, perfectly-shaped wings and slow looping flight were a wonder to behold as it dipped and swooped over the oaks, searching the dry hillside for the unwary field mouse, ground squirrel or cottontail.

Eagles are new here since a pair began hunting in the old apple orchard below the house. Two patches of white decorated the wings and a strip of white banded the tail of the young golden eagle. With a five-foot wingspan, the bird soared fifty to a hundred feet above the ground as it caught the wind thermals.

Two darker colored parents circled overhead, keeping an eye on the fledgling, as the eagle kept up a continual yelping bark. I was watching the flight of a just-out-of-the-nest golden eagle, the first in my ten years of living in this small, mid-California coastal valley.

Bruce Elliott, from California Fish and Game in Monterey, explains that the golden eagle lays two to three eggs, several days apart, but normally only one survives. After hatching, they live in the nest for 45 to 48 days and grow to full body size in their first year, taking 4 to 6 years to develop their adult plumage of brown with a golden wash over the back of the head and neck. Mature golden eagles have a wingspan of six to seven feet and can take a prey up to ten pounds. While they primarily inhabit dry coastal ranges, especially areas from Mt. Diablo to the backside of Mt. Hamilton, they are also common in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

My exuberance in seeing this bird turns to concern as this small valley rapidly changes. The owls that used to hoot close by every night haven't hooted for months. The once prevalent coyotes are quiet. These and other animals appear to be driven out by development. Swaths of apple orchards in the valley below are being ripped up by the roots and piled to burn in the fall, leaving the ground bare, the rippled brown earth mute evidence of a house about to be built.

Clearing land and destroying animal habitat is a global problem. Worldwide, more than 34,000 plants are threatened with extinction; more than 5,000 animal species. While I know of no studies of threatened species in our area, the overall problem is immense. Each year the world loses a forest the size of Washington state, and eight of the most endangered ecosystems in the U.S. are found in California. Our blissfully unconscious land-clearing habits are taking their toll.

In the past year, several whole sections of orchard and meadows disappeared behind nine-foot high fences, the fields plowed into orderly rows of grape seedlings, the wires overhead glistening like barbs atop a prison wall. For weeks, the white cones around the young seedlings formed white crosses, perhaps in memory of the wild creatures that once roamed across the bush-studded meadows.

Bought by a developer who clear-cut most of the former Christmas tree farm and immediately sent a letter warning all the neighbors to keep off his property, the meadow is now gated with an expensive cast-iron motif reminding one of either deer antlers or the flames of hell. A nearby forty-acre parcel is ringed with a fence and decorated at its entrance with a three-foot tall statue of a white-faced Virgin Mary, complete with votive candles, as if warning the animals against trespass.

The cotton tail rabbits, coastal deer, jackrabbits, red-tail hawks, coyotes, owls and different species of field mouse and ground squirrel habitat are being replaced by wire fences that sit astride ancient trails. The fenced fields and plowed ground destroy the natural vegetation that animals once grazed upon, hunted in and hid behind.

People want and need housing, but in the rush to build, something is being lost forever. This small valley, which as recently as 1962 was filled with apple orchards, coyote brush, ceanothus, mixed grasses, oaks, elderberry, monkey flower and yerba santa, is becoming an urban area It's inevitable. But does this once rural area of California have to resemble an upscale Napa County, all landscaped yards and suburban dreamscape dotted with sprawling $2 million mansions?

The question of how people will accommodate the wildlife looms larger as more houses are built. Will people continue to fence off the land, plow under the brush, scrape the ground beneath the oaks bare as a war zone? Or can we learn to have a minimum impact on the land, to plant native plants, leave passages for the animals, forgo water-guzzling lawns and live with wildlife instead of destroying it?

We need to break the suburban dream's grip on the American sense of hearth and home and provide space for wildlife in order to release our own rich heritage. I want the eagle's first flight to excite my grandchildren, giving them a sense of awe so essential to understanding our place in the universe. This is a far more precious gift than a six-foot square patch of sod.

Don Monkerud