Unalaska may sound like a town that by definition is not in Alaska, but it is. It lies on the outer edge of Alaska’s island chain, the Aleutian Islands, and is very much a part of the state.
Unalaska isn’t just any small town. Despite its paltry population of just 5,000 people, Unalaska can lay claim to a world superlative—one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles anywhere in the world. And in a country that venerates the eagle as an emblem of patriotism, it’s quite a distinction.
The bald eagle is to Unalaska what the pigeon is to New York City—inescapable. There are over 600 bald eagles within just a few square miles on the island.
What’s to account for the bald eagle’s dominance in town? For one, a prime concentration of their favorite foods, including waterfowl and carrion.
But the eagles have also learned to be opportunistic when it comes to hunting and gathering, and have gone so far as to compete with the human population for a snack. Unalaska locals have been subjected to birds picking through their trash, poaching from the decks of docked trawlers, and even swooping in to make off with their grocery bags.
The birds are especially fond of Dutch Harbor, in which more fish are caught than in any other harbor in the country—787 pounds of pollack, cod, halibut, and crab in 2015, to be exact—which, of course, makes it a particularly appealing port of call for hungry birds.
The eagles can get pretty aggressive, with reports of one 16-year-old resident having a slice of pepperoni pizza snatched out of his hands as he was eating it on his walk to school. And with their sharp, big claws and beaks, residents aren’t eager to get especially close.
There is not a lot that locals can do, however, about their abundant neighbors. Federal law prohibits harassing the eagles in any way, as they are protected by endangered species laws, and with good reason. The species came close to extinction thanks to aggressive hunting and use of pesticides, along with habitat loss.
But today, the bald eagle population stands at a healthy 70,000, with over half of the nation’s bald eagles living in Alaska. But if you’re really interested in getting up close and personal with the ultimate symbol of America, don’t just head to any place in Alaska—make a trip to, well, you know.