Articles

HOW TO CATCH AN EAGLE

Retirement bored Winnipeg’s Charles Broley so be started banding eagles. Now seventy-two and scarred from fighting razor-clawed birds atop hundred-foot trees, be is an international authority on

FRED BODSWORTH February 1 1952
Articles

HOW TO CATCH AN EAGLE

Retirement bored Winnipeg’s Charles Broley so be started banding eagles. Now seventy-two and scarred from fighting razor-clawed birds atop hundred-foot trees, be is an international authority on

FRED BODSWORTH February 1 1952

HOW TO CATCH AN EAGLE

FRED BODSWORTH

Retirement bored Winnipeg’s Charles Broley so be started banding eagles. Now seventy-two and scarred from fighting razor-clawed birds atop hundred-foot trees, be is an international authority on

AT FIFTY-EIGHT Charles L. Broley retired after twenty sedentary years as a Winnipeg bank manager—and promptly took on a job so strenuous most men would abandon it in their thirties.

That was 1938. Today, at seventy-two, Broley is lithe, steel-muscled, twenty pounds lighter, a good deal tougher, and internationally known for a hobby that demands the agility of a steeplejack, the physique and muscular co-ordination of a trapeze artist, the courage of a commando and the scholarly research of a scientist.

Broley keeps his retirement from growing boring by studying and placing identification bands on eagles a job%which involves climbing to nests a hundred or so feet up in the sort of a treetop that only a helicopter can conveniently reach. Moreover, Broley finds his close-hand studies are usually disputed by a couple of vinegary young eagles with dispositions like Amazon head-hunters and talons like butchers’ meathooks.

Broley has taught U.S. scientists more about their national bird than any man alive. Before he came along few scientists had been able to work up much enthusiasm for studying eagles.

Nevertheless Broley has climbed about two thousand trees containing eagles’ nests in the past twelve years, has fought barehanded with some twelve hundred peppery young eagle nestlings and snapped government-supplied bands on every one of them -even on the one that buried four talons in his face and left him blinded by his own blood one hundred feet up in a wind-tossed pine tree.

Asa banker Broley was an anonymity. Retired, he has earned a spot in a couple of U.S. biographies as the world’s leading authority on eagles, has been elected one of the few Canadian fellow members of the traditionally hard-to-crash American Ornithologists’ Union, and is in such demand as a lecturer that if he wished he could earn more than he ever did in a bank office. He’s also, without doubt, the most actively retired businessman on the continent.

Broley is a modest non-drinking non-smoking, two-meals-a-day man who would rather talk about birds than himself. He has an impassioned love of eagles though at many times they’ve tried to pitch him out of their nests for a sure-death drop of seventy-five to a hundred feet. He doesn’t talk much about his multitudinous scars. He’s been afraid to ever since one newspaper reported he was “scared from head to foot.”

He goes to Florida every winter but there the traditional retired-executive pattern ends. Florida is one of the few spots on the continent where the shotgun-peppered bald eagle is still common, and Broley has banded about eleven hundred eagles there, as-well as about one hundred Canadian eagles around his summer home at Delta, Ont., on the St. Lawrence. One hundred and ten of his eagles have turned up elsewhere, some as far as twentyfive hundred miles from where they were banded. By tracing the band numbers of these recovered birds he is slowly piecing together the story of their movements and lives.

Eagle Man Broley, spry and quick-moving, with a brown and leathery face, looks much balder than the bald-headed eagle which has made him famous. (The eagle seems bald because of its white head feathers.) His wife explains: “Poor Charlie, he lost the last of his hair one day when I tried to climb a nest with him.”

Born near Goderich, Ont,., son of a Methodist clergyman, Broley joined the Bank of Montreal " and remained with it until his retirement, in Winnipeg in 1938. Then he was suddenly confronted with the problem of what to do. Retirement., he feared, was going to be a bore, not a pleasure. He put his wife and daughter Jeanne in the car and headed for Florida.

But watching birds had been a hobby for years, so he stopped off at Washington for the 1938 convention of the American Ornithologists’ Union. There he met Richard H. Pough, an official of the National Audubon Society.

Broley asked Pough if he had any suggestions that might help keep him occupied in Florida. Pough did.

The Audubon Society, Pough said, was worried about the bald eagle in Florida. There was no law protecting it at that time and the big birds were being heavily shot. Because of the difficulty of reaching their nests, little research had heen done on eagles. Pough suggested Broley might seek out a few nests, keep an eye on them with binoculars and record what went on.

Then, as an afterthought, Pough took four U. S. Biological Survey bands from his pocket and handed them to Broley. “You might find a nest tree you could hire a boy to climb,” Pough said. “Get him to lower the nestlings down in a bag, you band them, then be sure the boy hauls them back up safely to the nest again. Don’t let the boy take any risks. They’re vicious fighters.”

Broley suggested four bands wouldn’t last long. Pough laughed. “You probably won’t find a boy with guts enough to permit you to use that many,” Pough said. He warned Broley that in the prè-

vious thirty years only about seventy eagles had been banded.

In Jan. 1939 Broley located a couple of nests, made a rope ladder, hired a sixteenyear-old boy and went out to band his first eagles. He selected the easiest-looking tree and threw a weighted line over^ the lowest limb, fifty feet up, then hauled up the rope ladder. The boy struggled up to the big nest. The adult eagles, which Broley has discovered are never bold enough to attack intruders at their nests, circled around kaka-ing at a safe distance.

But the nest contained two young eagles, full of fight though still unable to fly.

As the boy climbed onto the six-foot-wide nest one young eagle sank its talons into his hand. Broley heard the boy scream, saw him grab a stick from the nest and start beating the bird.

Broley yelled at him to come back down. White and trembling, the youth reached the ground.

“I saw^ right then that if 1 was going to band eagles I’d have to do my own climbing,” Broley relates.

He came back next day alone, strung up the rope ladder, put bands and pliers in his pocket, and started up. He hadn’t climbed a tree since his school days. When he stepped onto the rope ladder bis feet swung forward so that practically his e 'tire weight was hanging on his arms, but somehow he reached the lowest limb. Breathing hard, his arms aching, he rested. The ground, fifty feet below, looked half a mile away. He still had another fifty feet to go. He was trembling so much it was difficult to hang on. It seemed an hour later before he reached the nest, a huge solidly built platform of sticks six feet across and six feet deep which flared out over his head like a giant bowl. How was he to get around it and onto the top?

Broley still doesn’t know how he did it. But he knows now, two thousand climbs later, that this is the most difficult part of every climb.

Sitting on an eagle’s nest with a couple of scrappy young ten-to-fifteenpound eagles is like sharing a rumble seat with a couple of wildcats. There were two youngsters in this first nest.

When he pulled one toward him for banding it started cutting his face with its stiff wings. One talon ripped his shirt sleeve and left a jagged wound along his arm. Another sink into the back of his left hand so deeply that when he jerked his hand back the whole bird was dragged along with it. Broley couldn’t loosen the eagle’s powerful grip with the fingers of his free hand. The other hand was throbbing with pain. Then he rem imbered his banding pliers a id developed a technique he was to use many times afterward. He pried the talon out with the pliers like a dentist pulling a tooth.

Broley had the first of his scars.

He has banded twelve hundred eagles since then and he still doesn’t remem-

her how he finally got the bands closed on a leg of each of these first two. He does remember he was still shaking when he got buck to the ground.

“But after that, I knew I could do it,” Broley says. “I worked into it gradually, selecting easy trees. Then I found my arms were getting stronger and that height didn’t bother me. I learned how to grab a young eagle quickly before it could grab me. And I learned to climb a rope ladder—edgewise, hanging on to just one of the side ropes and with a leg on each side, heel-and-toe like. I soon discovered that I was enjoying a good tough tree, the type where the first limb is eighty feet up.” Broley used his four bands in a few days and wrote Pough asking for more. Pough sent him a dozen. They lasted a week. Pough then sent him a hundred and warned, “Don’t let those boys take any unnecessary risks.”

“Boys!” Broley wrote back. “I’m climbing the trees myself. Today I climbed to an eagle’s nest and discovered it had heen taken over by great horned owls. The owl nearly knocked me out of the tree. It struck me

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from behind and tore the right shoulder of my shirt off, leaving the marks of all eight claws on my back and arm.”

Pough began shaking in his boots. He’s had a guilty conscience and has been trying to stop Broley ever since.

Broley banded forty-four eagles that first season. Three months later eyebrows were raised in Washington when one of his eagles was shot at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., eleven hundred miles away. Soon a second Broley eagle was shot on the Atlantic coast eight hundred miles north of Florida. Previously it had been believed the eagle spent its entire life in its nesting area. Here was evidence that southern eagles migrated northward in spring.

Broley began to find retirement was interesting after all. The following winter he amazed U. S. ornithologists by banding seventy - three Florida eagles. That year he bought a summer home on an island near Delta, Ont., and became as migratory as his birds — banding Ontario eagles in summer and Florida eagles every winter.

In 1941 he banded seventy-nine. In 1942 his total rose to a hundred and six. His biggest year was 1946 when he put bands on a hundred and fifty eagles.

Wartime travel restrictions threatened to keep Broley out of Florida. U. S. government and university scientists pleaded with Ottawa to allow him to continue. Roger Tory Peterson, a leading U. S. ornithologist, said: “To Broley goes the distinction of adding more to the knowledge of our national bird than any man living.” And Dr. Arthur A. Allen, of Cornell University: “Broley has found out more about the eagle than the rest of us

ever dreamed of.” Broley was granted a special travel permit.

He is now much more widely known in the U. S. than in his native Canada. At Tampa, the city of one hundred and twenty-five thousand people where he spends his winters, he frequently receives fan letters addressed simply: The Eagle Man, Tampa, Fla. He delivers about fifty lectures a year illustrated by movies, mostly to U. S. audiences. On his way south in Nov. 1951 he was solidly booked for a lecture tour. For his return trip this spring he is already booked for five lectures in Philadelphia. Yet his first Toronto address wasn’t delivered until the fall of 1951.

Broley has some hair-raising stories to tell. Because bands slip from the legs of birds not yet fully grown, he has to wait until the young eagles are full size with a wingspread of six or seven feet, a weight of up to fifteen pounds, and a temper to match. Their talons, with a grip much more powerful than a man’s, are their most vicious weapon. Several times Broley has had a talon pierce completely through his hand. He can’t wear gloves or a mask because they interfere with climbing and vision.

One eagle once got a grip on Broley’s left hand with all four talons of one foot. One talon had gone deeply into the back of his hand and its curving point protruded an inch from where if entered. Broley spent five minutes trying to loosen it. In his struggles he bent over too closely and the eagle grabbed his face with its free foot. Broley w'as suddenly blinded with blood, swaying dizzily in the top of the one-hundred-foot pine. He was sure for a minute that one of his eyes was pierced.

Fortunately the talon was imbedded

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in an eyebrow. The others were in his

cheek and jaw.

Ia severe pain and partially blinded, Broley isn’t sure how he fought out of that predicament. It took him about fifteen minutes, he recalls, and he was dizzy and weak when it was over. But before he left the nest he grabbed the same eagle again, banded it, and another eagle that was in the same nest.

“I can say with authority that an eagle’s talons have a spread of about seven - and a - half inches—about the same as a man’s hand,” he declares. He points to the scar above his eye, to the others on his jaw. “There’s seven-and-a half inches between them,” he says.

Broley had a worse experience on a later occasion. He was standing on a dead limb looking over the top of a nest. The tree was swaying in a strong wind. There was one young eagle in the nest and when Broley pulled it to him it flipped over quickly so that both feet, talons extended, were sticking up in the air. Broley was afraid to shift his weight quickly because of the dead limb. Before he could move the eagle had a firm grip on both his hands. Broley’s pliers were in a hip pocket but he couldn’t move either hand to reach them. With both hands held fast, he squirmed up onto the nest to get his weight off the dead branch. With every move the eagle dug its talons in more deeply. Slowly Broley pulled his hands together so that Vie eou’id reacVi one with the other. Then, with his stronger right hand, he gradually worked the talons out of his left hand. He was then able to reach and use the pliers to release his right hand.

“My love affair with eagles,” Broley says, “is a one-sided affair. It’s unrequited as far as the eagles are concerned.”

Broley has had only two bad falls, hast year in Florida he erected a blind of chicken wire and canvas to get movie shots of adult eagles at a nest. There was no limb on which to place his hide-out so he suspended it in mid-air, seventy-five feet up, from a limb above. Inside he had a narrow board, on which he sat.

One Way to Get a Waistline

Adult eagles rarely return to their nests if they think anyone is in the vicinity. Broley left the blind empty for three weeks to get the eagles accustomed to it, then returned one morning at dawn intending to slip into it unobserved—eagles are always away fishing at that time of the day. But he found that the young eagle had fallen out during the night and was on the ground beneath. By the time he got the youngster hauled back up into the nest its parents had returned highly disturbed. Broley entered the blind anyway, hoping the eagles would forget him. From 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. he waited, seated uncomfortably on his swinglike seat. About four, he discovered one of the eagles had flown in from behind him and was feeding the youngster on the nest just twenty feet away. Broley shifted quickly to start his movie camera and this broke the wire on which one end of his seat was suspended. Broley dropped, turning a backward somersault in midair. Five feet below was a dead branch. He hit it with his side. It broke. But the blow threw Broley against the trunk of the tree and a moment later he realized he was clinging for dear life to the tree trunk.

Broley’s other fall was under different circumstances. After banding more than one hundred eagles one year without mishap, he slipped from a chair

while putting his banding equipment away on a closet shelf and knocked himself unconscious. He claims it’s the most serious accident in his banding career.

The Eagle Man’s system of reaching nests combines many of the tricks of a steeplejack with a few unique dodges of his own. He carries about sixty pounds of rope ladders and other equipment, sometimes to nests four or five miles from the nearest road, across sand-dune country infested with rattlesnakes or through cypress swamps.

With a slingshot he fires a one-ounce lead weight, to which a tight fishline is attached, over the lowest limb— sometimes seventy - five feet above ground. The weight drops to the ground drawing the fishhne with it. With this he hauls up a clothesline, then a seven-eighths-inch rope, then his rope ladder. Sometimes he has to carry up several shorter rope ladders to span gaps between limbs.

One cypress has its nest a hundred and fifteen feet above ground and has so few limbs on the way up that Broley spends three and a half hours climbing it. He has lost as much as seventeen pounds in a single week’s banding.

Between seasons he keeps in shape by chinning the bar. “I go into training until I can manage fifteen chin-ups easily, then I know I’m ready for another season.”

His climbing prowess is almost legendary. From coast to coast scaling a tree with a rope ladder has become known as “doing a Broley.”

A couple of years ago a movie photographer was sent to Delta from Ottawa to get pictures of him at work. Broley took the photographer and two assistants to a tree that had a nest about ninety feet up. The photographer announced he intended to climb up and get shots of Broley with the eagles in the nest. Broley looked him over. He was about thirty, wellbuilt and sturdy. “Are you in good shape?” Broley asked him.

“I just left the paratroopers,” the photographer laughed. “I can get anywhere a seventy-year-old man can.”

Broley went up the ladder. The exparatrooper followed slowly and reached the nest fifteen minutes behind Broley, trembling and white-faced. He couldn’t hold his camera still enough to focus it, much less get pictures. Then he was sick and started back down. Broley stayed to band the eagles.

Several minutes later Broley heard the photographer screaming. He learned afterward that he had collapsed from exhaustion on the ladder. The only thing that saved him from a bad fall was the fact that one leg slipped between two of the ladder rungs. When Broley got down the ex-paratrooper was lying full-length on the ground— out cold.

Broley’s main discovery has been that the eagle is a long-distance traveler and not a stay-at-home. Southern eagles after nesting in the winter move

northward, and northern eagles which nest in Canada in summer migrate southward. One eagle, shot at La Malbaie, Charlevoix, Que., in May 1950, had covered two thousand miles in a month.

Broley is sure that eagles are monogamous birds, but he wonders if sterility isn't sometimes grounds for an eagle divorce. He watched one nest for three years which produced no young and suspected the male was sterile. Then, in Broley’s absence, the two eagles were seen to fight to the death somet hing very rare for married eagles don’t quarrel. The female emerged victor and several days later returned with a new mate and raised a family. Did she kill her first mate because of his sterility? “Form your own conclusions,” says Broley, “but I suspect she was fed up with sitting on those infertile eggs.”

They Don’t Steal Babies

Broley is particularly worried about the eagle’s future. “If gunners won’t leave it alone,” he says, “I’m afraid we’ll lose our eagle as they have in Blurope.” A large percentage of his banded birds are recovered dead, although the eagle is protected by law in the U. S. and most of Canada.

The Eagle Man is doing his best to correct popular misconceptions about eagles. He claims adult eagles never attack humans, even at their own nests —they are not as courageous in this respect as hawks and many smaller birds. They don’t steal babies. They couldn’t if they wanted to, for the limit an eagle can lift is about six pounds.

Ninety percent of the eagle’s diet is coarse fish of varieties easily caught and of no commercial value. In two thousand climbs to eagles’ nests Broley has only once found remains of barnyard fowl. Later he learned they had come from a refuse heap where a farmer had tossed remains of chickens killed for marketing.

But folklore tales about eagles eating lambs and babies are hard to kill. “People,” Broley declares sadly, “will believe anything.” He tells this story to prove it:

Bird bands used in Canada and the U. S. carry a number and the inscription, Notify Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington. A few years ago banding was under the Biological Survey of Washington and the inscription then was abbreviated because of the bands’ small size to Wash. Biol. Surv. An Alberta farmer shot a crow marked with one of these earlier bands. He wrote indignantly to the U. S. government:

Dear Sirs: I shot one of your pet crows and followed instructions attached to it. I washed it and biled it and surved it. It was turrible. You should stop trying to fool the people with things like this. ★