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Facts About Eagles
The majestic eagle. With its powerful and graceful wings, it can soar through the sky and cause traffic to stop on the side of a road for anything but modest picture. It is a symbol of power, strength, and thievery. Surprised? You’ll be interested to know that there are many things that you might not know about the eagle.
The Bald Eagle
Let’s first begin with the most well-known and recognized “Bald” eagle. I use quotations around “bald” for a very good reason. Get a close up of the bird and you realize it is anything but bald. The white crown (cap) that it wears shines in the sunlight and lets everyone know that it is the Bald Eagle. When Europeans first come to North America and saw this creature, the word “bald” meant to them “white”. Thus giving us our Bald Eagle. It reminded them of their sea eagles back home.
The bald eagle is native only to North America and not found anywhere else in the world. Of the estimated 70,000 that currently fly our skies, half of them reside in Alaska. The bald eagle prefers to be near bodies of water since fish is their primary and preferred food source. Alaska is known for its large coastline and for having few people. This fits our feathered friend’s life just fine. The more people, the less animals and territory for the eagle. That is why over the years since the European invasion the numbers of bald eagles declined so rapidly.
In the early twentieth century, it began to be noticed how less often the eagle was being spotted flying high above over our lakes and rivers. After numerous studies it was discovered that there were just a few thousand left to cover the entire are of Canada, America, and Mexico. That is not leaving much chance of spotting an eagle. Which does lead to why we are so fascinated when we do see one. In 1967 our bald was placed on the endangered list. Now, it was protected. At that time there were about 500 mating pairs known to researchers. In just a few years in 1995 it was placed at threatened status. Then in 2007 it was removed from the endangered list. It was still protected but researchers could see huge results. From 500 mating pairs to about 5,000 in just a few decades. That is progress.
Protection continues under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 which prohibits not only killing of the birds, but any kind of contact with them including even possessing a fallen feather. Unfortunately, many foolish people were climbing into nests and harassing the birds which interfered with their survival. The only exceptions to this act were given to the Native Americans but only if their culture had already used eagles in many of their customs and ceremonies. They are still not allowed to kill but they can possess the feathers and the talons for ceremonial purposes only. If the Native Americans respected this stewardship of the eagles like their ancestors did, there would be no harassing of the bird since deep respect and honor of nature accompanied their traditions.
The eagle has proven itself to be resilient. They can live up to 30 years in the wild and they mate for life. They are dedicated to their mate. But if tragedy should strike, they know that they need to keep on so another mate is chosen without hesitation.
The males and females pretty much look identical. But the females get the upper-hand by being about 25% larger than their mates. I guess we don’t have to wonder who does the dishes in that household. When they go out on their own, they choose trees high up in the sky that can support a lot of weight. This is not because they eat a lot of fish, but because they like to make home roomy as the years go by. When a home chosen and constructed, there is no thoughts of moving on up, so to speak. They use the same next year after year. If man or nature removes their tree, another one in the same neighborhood is chosen. The nests can weigh as much as 2 tons (yes, I said “tons”) and be 9 feet wide. The depths of these nests with years of additions can get as high as 15 feet. Some have been documented to be even deeper.
Once a home is chosen, a mate is looked for. The mating of the eagles can be awesome to watch and at the same time frightful. They begin their courtship up in the sky with their talons outstretched. I might as well stop trying to describe their intricate mating and let a master tell it.
The Dalliance of the Eagles
Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons losing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate divorce flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.
by Walt Whitman
After 35 days, the result is of young eagles to carry on their legacy. When the little ones break out of their shells both parents share in the raising of the young. They take turns going out and hunting for food while the other one stays to guard the next from would be predators. The young could be rather surprising to behold at first because they lack the renown white head. They are brown with a little white on their bodies, but not until they reach sexual maturity at age 5 do they show their “bald” side.
At full maturity they can be 3 feet tall with a wingspan of around eight feet. The body weight averages 13 pounds but some have been documented to be bigger. The northern eagles tend to be larger than their southern relatives. The immense size and their ferocious looks have laid the foundation for many of the myths that have spread about eagles. When we moved to Northern Wisconsin, I was amazed at the number of eagles that I could see sitting in my own yard or just driving to the store. I had a huge laugh (and kicked myself for not having a camera) when I drove by a lake to see the guys ice fishing. A few yards away was an extremely large eagle waiting to see what they brought up. Now the bird would not have attacked them for the fish but I’m sure he was hoping they would drop it. Overall, eagles prefer to avoid people and therefore build their homes away from them if possible and rarely hunt near large amounts of human activity. All of our neighbors and relatives have warned us about letting our cats or our dog. The eagles will take them away is we’re not careful. Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble but the odds are pretty slim that that will happen. The maximum amount of cargo an eagle can carry is 4 or 5 pounds and that is only if it acquired it at full speed. The distance it would be able to go would be short. To drop down and pick up prey, the eagle chooses animals less than 2 pounds so that they can lift easier and make it to their nest. The conclusion would be that most house pets would be safe from the mighty eagle. They prefer fish or carrion (already dead meat) to going around kidnapping pets.
I mentioned at the beginning of all this about them being thieves. Eagles are part of the raptor family which includes hawks, vultures, falcons, and owls. They are hunters, but at times they tend to be a little lazy and crooked. It is not uncommon for an eagle to sit in high reaches of the trees around a large body of water and watch as other birds swoop down attempting to catch an unsuspecting fish. As soon as one does, the eagle grins slightly and pushing forcefully into the air aiming at the successful hunter. With a few bumps and sharp talons, the eagle makes off with the prize leaving the other defeated and hungry. They won’t let the young of other birds in their 15 mile territory pass by either which is why you might see a few black birds chasing the massive eagle away from their nests.
In 1782 the bald eagle was chosen to be the national bird of the new country of the United States of America. It was chosen for its majestic and solid stance. It was regal. It was strong. And according to Benjamin Franklin and others it was a thief and should not even be considered to represent the country. He wanted the noble turkey who was honorable, smart, and beautiful to be the emblem. Thanksgiving Day would be a little different today if Franklin won the day. Instead it is the bald eagle that is on the official emblem of the United States.
The Golden Eagle
Most people think of the bald eagle when they hear “eagle”. But they are just a small part of the eagle family. We cannot leave out the Golden Eagle. No, they don’t wear gold or shine in the bright sunlight, but the golden eagle is just as majestic. At first glance they look like the young immature bald eagles and have commonly been mistaken for them. But upon closer look at the legs you see more plumage of the golden eagles while the bald eagles go bare legged.
Golden eagles can be found in the entire Northern Hemisphere. You won’t find them congregating around the lakes and rivers, but you will find them in the hills, cliffs and prairies. They prefer a banquet of mice, prairie dogs and other small critters. Fish are not on the menu.
Golden ones can grow to 3 feet high and get wingspans of 7 feet. On average they can weigh 15 pounds and can keep neck to neck with their bald relatives on cargo weight. During their 20 years life they build their homes in the rocky cliffs where they can see the terrain below them for any small movement. They are the primary eagle that is used in falconry due their “eagle” eyes.
These majestic birds have also been honored by various native tribes and today that prestige is carried by Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan as their national bird. You can also find the golden eagle on many official emblems of many other countries throughout the northern hemisphere.
The Harpy Eagle
Before we finish our journey through the life of an eagle, let’s take a look at the largest and the most powerful eagle on earth, the Harpy Eagle.
This immense eagle can be found in the tropical regions of Central and South America. They can grow up to 4 feet high and weigh 20 pounds. The wingspan and reach more than 6 ½ feet. Small and not-so-small critters need to be very wary as they go about their day.