Eagle flight and other myths
Eagles do not eat children or pets
Von Riley Woodford
An eagle swoops to snatch a fish. Eagles weigh 8 to 12 pounds and can carry around three or four pounds. ADF&G photo.
Every few years, a story makes the rounds about a bald eagle kidnapping a dog or trying to snag someone's cat. Birds of prey biologists and people who live near eagles have seen a lot of grasping and carrying -- as well as swooping and swimming -- and they've offered insights into what eagles really can and can't do.
Bald eagles are strong, aggressive birds, but like anything that flies, they are governed by aerodynamics. An eagle's wings must support the 8 to 12 pound bird as well as anything the bird is carrying, and the best estimate of an eagle's lifting capacity is around 4 or 5 pounds. But it's not that simple.
The lift depends not only on the wing size, but also on the flight speed. The faster a bird (or airplane) flies, the greater the potential for lift. An eagle that lands on the beach to catch a fish and then takes off again is limited to a lighter load than an eagle that swoops down at 20 or 30 miles an hour and snatches a fish. This momentum and speed gives the bird the ability to carry more weight.
Biologist Ron Clarke earned his master's degree studying birds of prey and is a falconer who trains birds of prey. He hunts with a gyrfalcon and a peregrine falcon and said his 45-ounce gyr can carry an 8-ounce buffalo head duck fairly easily. "But he can't do that with a mallard," he said. At about two pounds, a mallard weighs four times as much as a buffalo head.
Clarke said an eagle with swing is a different story.
"On a wide, open beach, I have no doubt that an eagle in full steam could pick up a six- or eight-pound dog and just keep going," Clarke said. "If it landed to kill a ten pounder and then tried to pick up and fly away from a dead spot, could it get off the ground? Probably not."
Eagles carry heavier loads over a short distance. Mike Jacobson worked for the U.S. Navy for decades as a specialist in Eagle management. Fish and Wildlife Service and recently retired.
"There used to be stories of eagles abducting babies and young children and none of that was ever documented," he said. “You can pick up and carry four or five pounds at most and actually fly off with it. They can lift and bounce a little more, but they can't carry it away.
Flying may be an eagle's birthright, but it requires skill. Falconers and bird watchers can attest that descending for dinner or snatching food from the water takes techniques honed with experience. Young predators develop their hunting skills through trial and error, play and testing boundaries. Young eagles pounce on floating bottles, attempt to lift overweight salmon, and examine new objects.
"There used to be stories of eagles abducting babies and young children, and none of that has ever been documented," said Mike Jacobson, an eagle expert.
Jacobson said an immature eagle is more likely to swoop down on something inappropriate, like a large dog on the beach. People then overreact and claim that eagles are hunting dogs. "It's being exaggerated," he said. "Eagles do not hunt cats and small dogs."
The vast majority of eagle diet in the Southeast consists of fish. Jacobson said diets are more variable in other areas as eagles take advantage of local opportunities. Eagles living near seabird colonies eat more birds, and interior eagles take more birds and small mammals than southeastern eagles. Jacobson once saw an eagle carrying a mink, and he has heard stories of eagles carrying small muskrats. Eagles have been known to prey on sea otter pups in the Aleutian Islands during pup season. But fish is the bread and butter of bald eagles.
Other eagles are different. Jacobson said golden eagles are comparable to bald eagles in size and weight, but they target different prey. "Golden eagles aren't bigger or stronger, but they behave very differently," he said.
Although bald eagles don't actively target cats, Jacobson has heard a few stories that seemed plausible. A small cat is certainly within an eagle's capabilities. "Eagles have occasionally nailed people's cats," he said. "It's rare, but people sometimes see them swooping down on cats."
David Hunsaker once found a cat collar in an eagle's nest. The nest is just outside the window of his Tee Harbor home and he has done a lot of eagle watching over the past twelve years. He and his wife watched a pair of eagles build the nest and have seen eagles incubate eggs, provide food and raise a number of broods of chicks. You watched the chicks grow and fledge.
"The cat collar was fun," he said. “A bell was fitted to warn birds. It was still buckled.”
Hunsaker added that the collar doesn't necessarily prove the eagles carried a cat to the nest. There was also a toy rattle for children in the nest. "I envision that rattle in a chubby fist, but it's unlikely the eagles captured a child."
It's also possible that the cat was a picked up roadkill. He's seen fur in the nest a few times and a few bloody birds, but said the eagles are almost exclusively piscivores.
"Most are herring or smelt, small fish about 20 centimeters long," he said. He has seen many salmon delivered to the nest, usually in pieces. “They bring in half a salmon, usually a pink one, then take off and come back with what appears to be the other half. So they chop it up somewhere. I've never seen them bring a whole coho or sockeye, but pieces."
Hunsaker disputes reports of eagles taking small dogs, not because they can't carry them, but because he's observed eagles being very suspicious of humans. Although the nest is close to the house, the birds do not rest on the top of the house, the deck, or nearby utility poles. "They're really nervous around people," he said. "You will not pull a dog off the leash or right in front of the owner."
Herring and other small fish are the bread and butter for bald eagles on the Alaskan coast. ADF&G photo.
Biologist Phil Schempf works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the area of raptor and migratory bird management. He has no doubt that an eagle could kill a small dog or cat given the opportunity and carry it, or at least parts of it, to a nest. "I have a feeling it doesn't happen very often," he wrote in an email. “I would suspect that this is because eagles are wary of approaching humans or foraging in novel areas such as humans' courtyards. Eagles typically forage on beaches or riparian areas where it is rare for dogs and cats to be left unattended by their owners.”
Sometimes an eagle is spotted in the water, clutching a heavy salmon in its claws and laboriously flapping its wings to shore. It's an awkward swimming style, but it works. It is said that the eagle cannot let go that the claws somehow cling to the fish. That is not true. There is no involuntary locking mechanism and the eagle could let go if it wanted to. The hungry bird just decided the food was worth the swim.
Jacobson said there have been a number of sightings over the years of eagles reaching for fish and being dragged underwater. He said it's not because they can't let go of their claws, "they can let go," he said.
"It's common for them to catch a fish that's too heavy to fly with... They can't take off, but they can pull it ashore and flap their wings. They're pretty good swimmers. They have thick down, so they swim pretty well. Occasionally they drown if they get too far from shore.”
Petersburg state wildlife biologist Rich Lowell said it's not uncommon for eagles to land in the water. His office next to a fish processing plant overlooks the water and he has seen an eagle purposely land on the water to scavenge fish waste discarded by workers. He said, contrary to popular belief, an eagle can take off from the surface of the water as long as it doesn't sit there too long and its wings get wet. He added that while eagles can hold on with their claws, this is a purely voluntary action and they can let go at will.
Riley Woodford is a writer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is the editor of Alaska Fish and Wildlife News and produces the radio show Sounds Wild.
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