A Few Random Notes on the Bald Eagle

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Nature Magazine, September 1937

The perennial yarns of the predatory fierceness of the bald eagle once again have been dusted off and are being broadcast throughout the land. Just a few days ago I read in a national magazine of wide circulation that "the eagles are seldom gentle and are amongst the fiercest birds of prey. They attack sheep, rabbits and often wolves. Eagles have tremendous appetites and have been known to devour a calf, a sheep and a dog in a single week." The author of the article, however, fails to disclose whether it was a single bird or a group of them that "devoured" the formidable repast. But, he does convey the impression that eagles had actually brought down the animals mentioned.

In another influential periodical it was averred that eagles have been known to attack children, and one was seen to fight and carry off a wildcat. Paradoxically, in another issue of the same paper there was an item about an eagle being ignominiously vanquished by a six-months-old Plymouth Rock rooster, the latter actually killing the large bird of prey.

With apologies to the Bard, "what manner of bird is this?" It surely cannot be the same bird that I observed daily during my three-month stay on the Alaskan archipelago; a period during which I never once saw an eagle attack anything alive, unless the few salmon that they pirated from ospreys could be considered living prey.


My observations of the birds were not casual, but were systematically conducted studies of more than one-hundred individuals. A part of my duties as a salmon trap watcher was to dispatch as many eagles as possible, so that I had plenty of opportunity for observation, although I must confess to a woeful neglect of the prescribed duties in spite of the federal bounty of one dollar.

It was contended (and still is) by the salmon interests that the eagle was responsible for the tremendously reduced numbers of salmon. After I had had a little time to size up the situation, I began to wonder how a group of apparently intelligent men could formulate the opinions they had about a creature that seemed wholly inoffensive so far as live fish were concerned. Indeed, I thought them decidedly beneficial, for they consumed quantities of decomposed fish carcasses that drifted ashore. In fact, they showed a decided preference for carcasses that showed the most decay.

People have accused the eagle of destroying not only grouse, ptarmigan and waterfowl, but also young caribou, mountain sheep and goats. But why the eagles should leave an abundant supply of their favorite food, available along practically any watercourse, has always been a source of wonder to me, particularly when considering the comparative difficulty involving the capture of the prey that they are accused of taking. To this I might add that on eleven separate instances I observed young fawns in the company of their mothers contentedly feeding within easy striking distances of several eagles. Did the eagles so much as turn a covetous eye in their direction? I should say not. They preferred to waddle clumsily from one festering pile of fish to another, selecting choice morsels to eat there on the spot, or to carry off to their young.

During the summer of 1924 a pair of eagles included Lake Morey, near Fairlee, Vermont, as part of their range. Again I had unusual opportunities for study because I happened to be spending the summer there.

At the west end of the lake lived several farmers who expressed the belief that their poultry would be unsafe with the eagles about. But during the course of the season not a single .head was reported missing, although the eagles were frequently seen nearby feeding on the thousands of dead fish that were killed that summer by fungal parasites.

To determine, if possible, the lifting power of an eagle, I anchored a dead four-pound pickerel to a ten pound rock in fifteen feet of water, the fish, of course, floating on the surface at the end of a stout line. Just as I had expected, one of the eagles (the female) swooped, grasped the fish and tried to make off with it. During the short interval of violent wing beating it succeeded in dragging the rock about twenty feet. Then it dropped the obstinate fish and winged off in disgust at its failure.

An average bald eagle weighs between eight and twelve pounds, and can probably lift the equivalent of its own weight. Yet the species has been reported to have carried off children weighing up to fifty pounds. A newspaper item before me states that an eight-year-old boy was seized by one and lifted a good twenty feet before he was dropped to the ground.

Why is it that those who have had the greatest opportunities to observe the regal birds never have seen them performing the sensational feats of strength and ferocity with which they are too frequently credited? I long ago relegated eagle stories to the same limbo to which I consign most of the snake stories that are extant.

Why not give the bird that was chosen as our national emblem a chance? Even if he were as destructive as he has been pictured by some, there would still be excellent reasons for the preservation of the living symbol of our liberty and freedom because it is a fitting symbol.