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Enraptured by raptors

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An icon for many cultures, the eagle is also symbolic of the interdependence of man and environment

It's the start of the silly season, when carloads of powder hounds whiz along the Sea-to-Sky corridor, their eyes glazed over with the anticipation of the first run ahead.

However, for those without the snow blinkers on, the journey can yield a different type of natural magic – namely the sight of hundreds or even thousands of bald eagles.

Take a few minutes drive off Highway 99 near Brackendale and you enter another world, where white capped heads stand out in stark contrast to the green canopy carpeting the sides of the Cheakamus and Squamish rivers. Get a little closer and you will be captivated, and quite possibly chose not to go skiing that day.

There is something about the eagle that appeals to the human spirit – whether it is in the proud stance of the bird, its grace and strength or the way it soars so effortlessly across the skies. Since ancient times, these "kings of birds and birds of kings" have garnered multi-national and multi-cultural iconic status. The Roman, Byzantine, Holy Roman, Russian, French and Austrian empires chose the eagle as the symbol of their cultures, as did the Aztecs. The ancient Greeks even awarded a constellation to Zeus's favoured eagle, Aquila. Eagle gods were common in ancient Mesopotamia and the bird-king Garuda arose from Indian Hindu scriptures. Closer to home, eagles play a huge role in Native American Indian culture, as seen in aboriginal art, mythology and artefacts. And of course the eagle is the symbol of the United States.

The widespread fascination with eagles is hardly surprising, given they are among the biggest and most powerful birds of prey in the world and are found on every continent except Antarctica. In all there are 59 species of eagles, including the bald and golden eagles, which are found in North America. With a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet, it is hard not to notice a bald eagle that is passing you by. And fortunately today it is not a rare sight. Bald eagles have made it off the planet's endangered species list, largely due to the banning of DDT – a pesticide that makes eagle eggshells too thin to protect the embryos. The abolition of a post-World War II bald eagle bounty in Alaska has also helped.

An international visitor

When asked how to sum up the raptor family, most people respond with words such as "majestic", "proud" and "regal." And how often have you heard someone say, "If I could come back as anything, I'd come back as an eagle"? Or as cartoonist Gary Larson put it in his sketch of Walkman-wearing, tree-sitting eagles: "Birds of prey know they're cool."

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