We all have watched eagles soar high above us in the sky riding the thermal currents with some jealousy in our hearts and wonder what it must feel like to be free of the bonds that hold our species firmly rooted on the ground, at least without mechanical means such as airplanes. In our jealousy we sometimes forget that it is a tough life out there for these majestic birds that have to carve out a living for themselves in the wilderness.
Eagles: Noble Birds Or Neighborhood Thugs?
A long time ago, when film was all the rage and digital photography was in its infancy, I observed an osprey carry off a fish almost the size of itself. The bird was gaining height quite rapidly and as I watched the osprey with great admiration I brought my camera up into shooting position. My camera had a motor drive and after the first picture the whine of the automatic rewind told me that the film was full. And, as I kept watching through my telephoto lens, I witnessed a robbery from start to finish. An eagle swooped in and started attacking the osprey quite violently. The poor bird, outsized by its attacker, tried to outmaneuver the eagle to no avail and the attacks continued relentlessly. In its desperation the osprey dropped the fish. The eagle, which was coming in for another pass at the osprey, changed directions immediately, tucked in its wings as it followed the falling fish, grabbing it in mid-air and pulling out of the dive with amazing control over its maneuvers. While I felt sorry for the osprey I was amazed at the same time at the ruthlessness and precision with which the “crime” had was committed. But, in retrospect, what had actually happened? The osprey, which, by giving up the fish had survived the ordeal, could go fishing again and the eagle had the toll, which had to be paid in his kingdom for that day: mere commonplace out there in the wilderness.
The Scavenger And The Price To Be Paid.
On several early morning drives to go somewhere on business or pleasure I encountered eagles sitting in the ditch beside the road. The story was almost always the same: a deer or moose had been hit by traffic during the night and the eagle was there to claim his prize before other scavengers arrived. On one such occasion I encountered the same moose carcass over several days. It was in the middle of January and an eagle was hanging around the carcass and fresh tracks indicated that other visitors were also frequenting this location. I stopped my car and walked back toward the dead moose when I noticed a dead eagle just off the edge of the road in the ditch not far from the carcass. He could not have been dead very long because its eyes were still clear and intact. I surmise that, when traffic approached and interrupted his meal, he took off and was hit by the vehicle. Undeterred, his friend continued to enjoy the “free” meal. While this situation was an accident it brings me to another pet peeve of mine: in order to control the wolf and coyote populations people sometimes try to poison them by using bait. Unfortunately what kills wolves and coyotes also kills eagles………… Just food for thought……….
Several years ago I watched as a person dumped a rather large plastic container of cooked spaghetti on a boat launch in one of the sleepy communities along the Old Island Highway on Vancouver Island. Within a short while two eagles were on the scene, diving at the pile of spaghetti and grabbing the noodles with their talons. As I watched in amazement the birds devoured the meal in flight and came back for more, dodging traffic on the highway in the process and maneuvering through the copious overhead wires in often very sharp turns with great agility. I wondered what would happen if they misjudged and hit one of the power lines. Luckily the spaghetti were soon gone and so were the eagles. Potential crisis averted………..
The Hunters They Were Meant To Be.
I was out kayaking one morning when I came upon a blue heron out to find his first meal of the day. It was early in the morning and the light was poor. So I left my camera in its bag and was content to watch the bird fish. I drifted closer as I had done previously on several occasions and, as I drifted ever closer, the bird ignored me, as had his friends before. Apparently, as much as I can figure, humans approaching by kayak from the water are not a threat. The trees were growing right down to the water line and, since the heron was fishing on one side of a point, the view of the other side was hidden from the bird’s view. Suddenly an eagle appeared at tree top level from around the corner. It spotted the heron and immediately went into a steep dive toward the apparent victim. However, the heron had paid attention and took off away from the eagle. The eagle swooped in but the heron, which was lumbering along at a very low speed, turned at the last possible moment and made the eagle overshoot. As I envisioned in my mind a drawn out “dogfight” between the eagle and the heron with the eagle coming out on top in the end, the eagle, having been foiled in his attempt to strike, pulled up and kept going in the direction he was headed. The heron returned to his spot and kept on fishing. Was the eagle too lazy? I don’t know.
Time and time again I have watched eagles dive on unsuspecting geese or ducks, which are feeding in the water, only to pull out of the attack at the last moment and keep going, only to watch from a perch not far away. Sometimes, in the confusion of the scramble to get airborne, birds will collide and get injured. Unable to fly they will become easy prey for the eagle. I have yet to witness such an accident first hand.
One morning I was out for a stroll when I spotted an eagle across the river. He was perched up high in a gigantic spruce tree and seemed restless, whistling impatiently. In the water below some ducks and seagulls were looking for breakfast. Suddenly the eagle went into to a steep dive from its perch toward the birds in the water. Autofocus is usually a blessing in situations like this, but this time it had become a curse. Unable to acquire the eagle in my viewfinder I gave up and watched as the birds scrambled into the air and scattered in all directions. This time the eagle had singled out a seagull. As the eagle swooped in for the grab the gull changed direction and made the eagle miss. This time the eagle was not going to be denied. He pulled up and executed a steep turn on a dime. The gull, after it had evaded the initial attack, did not pay any attention to the eagle anymore. The eagle, having gained considerable height in the steep turn, swooped down and plucked the gull out of the cool morning air. Game over. After the grab the eagle landed on some pilings across from me and began to devour the gull.
If you read one of my previous adventures you are already familiar with the following story, but I will re-tell it nonetheless just in case you missed or forgot it. On the way back from a grizzly watching tour we came across a large number of eagles, which were feeding on a school of herrings. Sailing into the wind they lined up just like aircraft heading into a major airport. The procedure was always the same: slowing down in the stiff breeze they acquired the target, made the grab and took off again. I saw eagles come up with one, two and three herrings at one time. I also watched some of them drop their bounty or even come up empty. While the successful hunters headed toward the shore to have a meal the others just went to the end of the line for another go-around. It was something else to watch.
Are Eagles Thugs? Are they scavengers? Or are they the noble great hunter? Personally I think they are a bit of everything. And, in order to carve out a living in the wild, they have to be.
Eagles are also very territorial as I had the opportunity to observe on numerous occasions, especially with immature eagles. I have watched the following scenario several times: a young eagle enters the resident’s territory only to find that he is not welcome. The resident will swoop in and punish the youngster until he leaves. Then the action stops. The youngster hopefully learned his lesson and will not make the same mistake again.
Raven: The Dark Nemesis.
The first time I saw it I could not believe it: a mature, fairly large eagle was running away from a much smaller raven which was in hot pursuit and matched the eagle turn for turn through a series of wild maneuvers. Then, inexplicably, the raven turned around and slowly flew away back to where he came from.
Another time I photographed an eagle as he was crossing a lake. Focused only on the eagle I did not pay attention to the surrounding sky above when out of the blue a raven, wings tucked in for a rapid descend, entered the viewfinder for a slit second and then was gone. The eagle seemed to be somewhat rattled but continued on its course since the raven was no longer a threat.
I have seen a raven intercept an eagle in mid-air, make him change direction and then actively chase it. To this day I do not know what would cause such behavior and I do not want to guess either.
However, the funniest thing I ever saw was an eagle being bullied by some crows, the raven’s smaller cousins. The eagle had landed in a tree, which was already occupied by one lonely crow. Shortly after the eagle had landed another crow joined the two birds, then another and another and so on. After approximately five minutes the tree was black with crows, which were by that time encroaching on the eagles space. The eagle finally had had enough, took off and flew away. Within one minute or so the all the crows were gone too. They had won their victory.
The Softer Side
Eagles also have a softer side. One just has to spend the time to see it. They are good, very protective parents who provide generously for their young until they leave their nests. Mated for life, they have their little squabbles, which are very funny to watch. I photographed one such occasion. The “old married couple” had just flown in and landed in a large spruce tree across the river from me, the female on a lower branch than the male, facing each other. As I readied my camera to take some photos the “husband” decided that he was going to sit beside his “wife” on the lower branch. What followed was hilarious: as soon as the “husband” had touched down beside his “wife” the branch became unstable under the additional weight and both birds were struggling to stay on it. Throughout the ordeal the “wife” showed her displeasure in no uncertain terms. As soon as she had finished her little tirade the “husband” had a little tantrum on his own. Shortly after both of them had finished he turned his head and gave her the most loving gaze I ever saw in the animal world. The only thing missing was he putting his wing around her shoulder and say: “my woman”. But, after a long while of gazing upon his life partner, he lifted his head and both surveyed their kingdom together. May they rule for a long, long time.
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