GREENVILLE — Gary Dillon will tell you that Carolina Classics’ naturally raised catfish are the best-tasting catfish you will find. He will not get an argument from Pitt County’s bald eagle population.
The 280-acre farm in the southeast portion of the county — one of five the company owns in eastern North Carolina — contains 26 ponds that produce about a million pounds of catfish each year. The fish are harvested out of pure waters with no pesticides or synthetic chemicals, Dillon, the company’s aquaculture manager said.
The 30 robust bald eagles gliding in the air above the ponds on Friday seemed to testify to Dillon’s claim of a quality food product.
They shoved off from their roosting places in the tall loblolly pines and cypress trees that border the ponds, then circled the skies above the waters, looking for signs of weakness or illness among the catfish swimming in the four-foot deep ponds beneath them.
“Until about six years ago, the predominant raptor species here was the osprey, with the eagles showing up in the winter,” Dillon said. “Now, it’s rare to see an osprey on our catfish farm. The bald eagles seem to have taken over the territory and are here year-round.”
It turns out that the usual image people have about eagles being great fishers that swoop down and grasp their prey with their mighty talons is accurate, but not their preferred method of hunting.
“They would far rather take a fish from someone else that’s caught one, like an osprey or heron — or each other, than do the work themselves,” Dillon said. “That’s why the osprey moved on; they just got tired of doing all the work and having the eagles claim the spoils.”
But the eagles do not mind sharing their leftovers, especially since the food source seems endless to them. Joining the bald eagles in the skies above the ponds is an equal or greater population of vultures, both the black and turkey varieties. It gets crowded up there, but structured, cooperative flight paths separate the soaring eagle and vulture groups from one another — at least until a fish is taken from below.
“The eagles don’t scare away the vultures; you’ll often see one sitting among a flock of vultures, just hanging out together,” Dillon said. “The eagle pretty much gets the fish and the vultures get the leftovers.”
The vultures help the farmers as well, Dillon said, by pulling out any fish that have died and drifted to the shore, then picking the carcasses clean.
During the warmer months, when the fishes’ metabolism speed up and feeding is increased, the eagles react to the sound and sight of the machines that toss the food pellets into the pond and bring the fish to the surface.
“That’s the dinner bell to them,” Dillon said.
During the winter months, bald eagles are most actively fishing at dawn and dusk, he said. During the middle hours of the day, they usually can be spotted roosting in the trees that surround the farm. If they decide to take a fish from the pond, they spot the one they want, swoop down directly from the tree and return back to the roost with fish in its claws, Dillon said.
“They don’t have to work hard here,” Dillon said. “If they do decide to take a fish from the water, any one of these ponds has up to 130,000 pounds of fish in it.”
With that much product in the water, Carolina Classics is not concerned about the lost inventory.
“We don’t miss it,” Dillon said. “A two-pound catfish each day is more than enough for a meal for an eagle, and what he doesn’t consume, the vultures and other birds and animals around here will finish.”
Juvenile eagles, still too young to hunt on their own or compete with adults, fly apart from their elders, in pairs or in tight groups. On this day, one group of five juveniles — Dillon and his co-worker, farm manager Chris Earls, estimated their age at about two years — flew in close circular formation away from the adults, periodically bumping one another or grasping at each other’s talons. Whether that is done in preparation for future competition over captured prey or just for fun is uncertain.
Earls, who spends all of his working time at the Ayden farm location, said he has not noticed any winter migration patterns among the eagles since they ejected the osprey population.
“Recent logging and clear cutting around the ponds has caused many of the eagles to build their nests in the taller timbers further away from the ponds, and they only come closer in the mornings and evenings during the winter months,” Earls said.
Rudy Cannon lives nearby with his wife, Irene — an avid bald eagle watcher, agreed with the professionals about that.
Rudy is the grandson of Claude and Emma Cannon, for whom a primary area road is named.
“My two cousins and I left our footprints on every piece of land within five miles of here when we were boys,” Cannon said. “We never saw an eagle in those days, or a beaver, coyote or red wolf. They weren’t here then in the kind of numbers that are here now. We’ve done a heck of a job in restoring wildlife to this area.”
Naturalist Jeff Marcus of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission agreed that wildlife restoration efforts have indeed helped revive a number of some species like those that Cannon mentioned, Marcus said.
“That’s one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles that I’ve heard of in North Carolina,” Marcus said. “It’s probably that food source and the large trees for roosting around it that does it.”
With nests that span up to eight feet across and weigh up to 1,000 pounds, only the largest trees will do for bald eagles, which can live for 30 years, Marcus said.
The eagles and vultures are not the only birds that have been drawn to the catfish cornucopia, Earls said. Blue and gray herons, snowy egrets, kingfishers, wood storks and several species of shore birds and ducks — some quite rare — also stake claims to the waters, he said. Land animals frequently spotted around the ponds include bears, foxes, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, beavers, otters, muskrats and nutria, Dillon said.
“Chris and I are both outdoorsmen and hunters, so we love it here,” Dillon said. “We’ve gotten used to seeing them now, but I still remember the first time I saw a bald eagle here.”
If things get monotonous for Earls, though, he just thinks about having a fancy desk job indoors. Which setting does he prefer?
“It all depends on how you define, ‘rich,’” Earls said.
The visiting wildlife provide quite an exhibition for nature lovers, and Carolina Classics has hosted scouting groups and Boys & Girls Club groups in the past.
“We just ask everyone to follow our rules while here for protecting their safety, our liability and the natural habitat that these creatures live in,” Dillon said.
People who want to see the bald eagles and other wildlife around the ponds should call ahead to Carolina Classics Natural Catfish at 746-2818 and arrange for a host to meet them at the gate.