Eagles are such powerful and majestic birds, which is why the Bald Eagle was chosen as the national symbol for the U.S. Eagles have powerful talons and huge wingspans. In part 3 of my series on birds of prey, I want to take a look at eagles AND falcons. I’m sure your heart is literally beating faster than Usain Bolt right now. I get adrenaline rushes just from thinking about falcons. If you missed out on my posts about vultures and hawks, check out the blog links on the right sidebar.
The Bald Eagle is the most recognizable raptor in the U.S. with its bold white head and tail. Now these eagles normally have a full head of feathers so you may be wondering why they are called ‘Bald’. Well this actually comes from the word ‘balde’, which is an old English term for white. Young Bald Eagles are darker and often do not develop the distinctive white head until around their 4th or 5th year. Hmm . . . all I remember about turning 4 years old was my totally awesome Cookie Monster cake. Anyway, the Bald Eagle usually has a wingspan between 6 and 7 feet and weighs between 8 and 14 pounds. You want to know something interesting? Female raptors are generally larger than males and this holds true for eagles. I bet that makes for some awkward conversations in the nest. “Hey honey, do you think I look fat?” “No dear, you’re just 50% heavier than me.” Speaking of nests, Bald Eagles are capable of constructing enormous nests. According to National Geographic, the largest nest ever recorded was 9.5 feet wide, 20 feet tall and weighed more than 4,000 pounds! I would never want to play stick pick-up with that!
Bald Eagles are viewed by many people as powerful predators, but did you know that eagles are pirates? They often will harass a smaller raptor, such as an osprey, into giving up its catch of fish. Ospreys are actually more efficient hunters, but eagles are opportunistic bullies. Sometimes even a fishing mammal will have its dinner taken away by an eagle! This tendency towards piracy was what led Benjamin Franklin to push for the turkey as our national emblem instead of the Bald Eagle. “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly . . .” Personally, I’m glad Ben didn’t get his way because I would much rather eat turkey for Thanksgiving than eagle. Bald Eagles also eat a lot of carrion and will occasionally hunt live prey such as a rabbit.
(Here I am holding Liberty, a Bald Eagle from the World Bird Sanctuary)
Now it’s time to briefly examine some lesser known members of the eagle family. Golden Eagles are often viewed as fierce hunters, capable of taking down cranes, deer and bighorn sheep! They also will resort to piracy at times but they seem to have a special fondness for rabbits and hares. Golden Eagles are named for the beautiful golden-brown feathers on the back of their head and neck. They are powerful fliers and are known for their wonderful aerial displays during courtship. How fast can they fly? Well, Golden Eagles have been recorded reaching speeds of almost 200 mph during a dive! Bugs Bunny wouldn’t stand a chance against one of these incredible birds! The largest bird I have ever handled was a Golden Eagle who weighed around 11 pounds. 11 pounds is a lot heavier than it sounds when you are balancing it on one hand while holding your arm straight!
Bateleur Eagles live primarily in the African plains and are very colorful members of the eagle family. Their name comes from the French word, ‘bateleur’, which means acrobat or tumbler. These eagles put on an beautiful display during courtship as their unusually short tail allows them to make quick maneuvers in the air. What’s interesting is that young Bateleurs actually have longer tail feathers than their parents! This helps them balance as they are learning how to fly. Eventually the tail feathers grow shorter as the Bateleur molts. Bateleurs hunt snakes, birds, mammals, and will occasionally eat insects and fish. Like all eagles, they also will feast on carrion and are often one of the first scavengers to arrive at a fresh carcass (Peregrine Fund).
(Bateleur Eagle named Shadow that I worked with at the World Bird Sanctuary. Note the short tail and red-orange face and legs. Shadow liked to nip me a lot and hissed at me one time when I tried to dance with him.)
Falcons are the sleek, agile predators of the raptor world. While hawks generally have broad wings and widespread tails, falcons have narrower wings with pointy tips and longer tails (Hope you can handle that super technical explanation). This slick design allows the Peregrine Falcon to dive at speeds of over 200 mph! The Peregrine Falcon is the most widespread falcon in the world as it can be found on every continent except Antarctica. The reason they don’t live in Antarctica is that they’re deathly afraid of Adelie Penguins. Peregrines almost became extinct in North America at one point due to pesticide poisoning from DDT. With efforts from conservationists and ornithologists, Peregrine Falcons eventually bounced backed and today they are fairly common throughout much of the U.S. One of the cool things about the Peregrine is that it will sometimes strike a bird in the air and then swoop back around and strike it again before it hits the ground! They hunt primarily birds but also enjoy tasty bats and an occasional mammal. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Peregrine Falcons have been documented attacking at least 400 different species of birds in the U.S. alone! When I was acting as a personal chef for Peregrine Falcons, I usually prepared them quail or chicks.
Peregrines are often a favorite of falconers and are usually well behaved birds. One of the Peregrines at the World Bird Sanctuary had previously worked at an Air Force base to keep songbirds away from the airfields! Why? Because birds crashing into planes is a major problem that results in millions of dollars in damage each year and sometimes even the unfortunate loss of human life. I love Peregrine Falcons and enjoyed working with them tremendously. They were such cool birds and I can still hear their lovable piercing screams.
(This is me holding Lightning)
Whew! I’m exhausted now. Time to take a break and gear up for my final installment in the birds of prey series, which will examine owls. Be prepared for crazy stories and lots of pictures! May you fly like a falcon, dance like a Bateleur, and use piracy like an eagle!