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Jacobs: Eagles make a Christmas week appearance

The eagle’s nomination as this week's bird of the week relies on a second chance encounter – of three eagles this time – two adults and a juvenile bird.

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Illustration / Mike Jacobs
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More often, the American bald eagle is associated with the high holiday of summer, Independence Day, than with the winter holiday, Christmas. To represent Christmas week, I most often turn to the gray partridge, the common redpoll, the northern cardinal … any of those species that have become associated with Christmas, mostly through tradition or the occurrence of a color, red, which shows up in the bird world without reference to Christmas … but is still powerfully evocative to us humans, of course.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

Nor did I choose the American bald eagle because of a chance encounter with an adult of the species that I reported last week. Instead, the eagle’s nomination this week relies on a second chance encounter – of three eagles this time – two adults and a juvenile bird.

Suezette spotted them along County Road 33, which is our usual route from Magpie Ridge, our place northwest of Grand Forks, to the city itself. I was watching for snowy owls.

The eagles we saw were dining – that is to say, they were eating carrion – in this case, the carcass of a deer that had been hit along the road.

Eagles are not, you might now concede, always exemplars of bravery, self-reliance and nationhood that we are always taught. Instead, they are … well …. scavengers is the best term. They are scavengers.

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This should not detract from their appeal, of course. The eagles’ enthusiasm for a meal of roadkill deer is little different from our own appreciation of a venison steak or a beef roast or a pork loin. Living things eat one another, from beetles through felines through canines and humans

So, we ought to concede that it is not behavior that elevates the American bald eagle to the status of national bird of the United States. Not at all. It’s the bird’s size, the stark contrast between the white head and the dark body, the ascent to flight, which seems both arduous and easy.

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And the flight itself! Those deep wingbeats! The apparent effort involved in getting airborne. And the grace that an airborne eagle invariably displays.

Still, the eagle had competition for the position of bird of the week. I had pretty well settled on the common redpoll, and I have a stack of materials about redpolls at the ready on my desk. Redpolls have been especially abundant at the feeder array at our place west of Gilby, North Dakota, this winter. There will be space for them later.

The eagles instantly became the subject of this week’s column. “That has to be bird of the week,” Suezette declared as soon as we’d seen the eagles.

There were two adults, easily identified by their white head, the feature that makes the American bald eagle instantly recognizable almost anywhere and almost anytime.

The third bird was likely a first year eagle, completely dark but displaying the wedge-shaped tail that marks eagles rising from a stationary position.

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Perhaps it is an unpleasant admission that bald eagles are not, for the most part, live hunters. Instead, they course over the landscape as turkey vultures do, and alight on whatever mound of dead flesh they encounter.

Bald eagles do take live prey in summer, but this consists mostly of fish, which are unlikely to be accessible in winter in the Northland. That is why eagles have gained a reputation as carrion eaters in this part of the world, but this is no reason to denigrate them.

American bald eagles can be confused with other large, mostly black birds, such as ravens and golden eagles. The white head is a giveaway, of course, but American bald eagles have a complicated and lengthy adolescence, moving through several plumage phases before the bold and unmistakable plumage of adulthood is reached.

Young-of-the-year eagles are almost completely dark. This could lead to confusion with ravens, or even at a casual glance with crows, but the young eagle is a larger, more robust bird. Its wing movements are heavier, and its overall appearance – general impression of size and shape – is likely to suggest a bald eagle almost immediately.

The only species that might be confused with the bald eagle is the golden eagle, not an especially close relative, but a large, dark bird with a powerful flight pattern. Golden eagles are less likely to be found on roadkill – they are largely live hunters – and they are uniformly dark from fledging through adulthood. Golden in their name refers to an area on the back of the neck that sometimes appears golden. Golden eagles might be a little larger than the American bald eagle, but size is never a reliable field mark.

Of course, these details do not suggest that the American bald eagle should be the bird of Christmas week. It is the eagles’ serendipitous occurrence along a rural road that brings that status here this week.

As for snowy owls, I’m still skunked for this season.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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