Bald Eagle (First Year)

It was Saturday, January 23, 2021, and I was driving on Troy Road past my twenty nestboxes in the roadside ditch at Smith Park when something caught my eye. Troy Road runs north along the westside of Delaware and I was on my way to enjoy a half-lunch at Wendy’s. I quickly glanced west to see large birds hundreds of yards from the road standing in a harvested soybean field. The field resembled a well-kept lawn since modern farm machinery cuts crops extremely close to the ground.

The sight of large birds caused me to quickly make a right turn into the park’s first parking lot where I circled back to park my car to point northwest. I retrieved my binoculars from my glove compartment, rolled down my window, and was immediately freaked out by seeing four Bald Eagles standing in the field. I quickly left my car to retrieve my spotting scope from my car’s trunk. Once back to my seat, I adjusted the scope’s window mount and adjusted the scope so I could watch the eagles at 30x. 

Only one eagle was mature with an iconic white head and tail, and it was eating something. I quickly snatched my data notebook from the passenger’s door panel and started recording my observations. It was 11:20 a.m..

The eagles were on the opposite side of a slight rise in the field, so at first, I could not identify what the adult eagle was eating. I was smiling since I had learned by watching dining eagles in the past that rank comes with age. The three younger eagles kept their distance at first, but the two older ones would slowly creep toward the food object. When the mature eagle became concerned, it would hop slightly into the air and use its sharp claws to threaten the emerging younger bird, or birds.

Bald Eagle (First Year)
First year Bald Eagle

Two of the eagles were third-year birds, so named based on the fact that birds are aged according to what calendar year they are living in. In other words, they have a bird calendar birthday on January 1. When I taught seventh grade science to classes made up of twelve and thirteen-year-olds, and when teaching about birds, I would urge the twelve year olds to tell their parents that they were already teenagers because they were living in their thirteenth year, and I would add, that such revelations will freak some parents out since raising teenagers can be challenging. After that announcement, smiles always sprouted throughout the classroom.

Heads of third-year eagles have an Osprey-feather pattern on their heads that includes a dark eye stripe. The one remaining eagle did not have a dark eye stripe making it the youngest raptor at the gathering, but since it was January, the eagle youngster had to be a new second-year bird.

Immature Bald Eagle - Photo Lisa Phelps
We guessed that this Bald Eagle seen at Magee Marsh was about a third year bird. They don’t reach adult plumage until the fourth year, but this one is moving in the right direction. Photo – Lisa Phelps

Finally, the identity of the prey item was revealed when the adult eagle flipped it and a possum’s head rolled into view. I can’t believe that a possum would be out in a bare field, so did an eagle retrieve a road kill, or was the possum harvested in one of the woody areas nearby? Can an eagle lift and carry a possum to fly it to a peaceful area for its consumption? Lots to think about but I had watched a NOVA episode on WOSU-TV entitled Eagle Power and I remember the program mentioning a 13-pound prey item being carried by one of the eagle species. The program is on the Internet for anyone to view, so enjoy. (Note: access to the NOVA episode is thorugh WOSU Passport or other subscription, or check your local library for DVD availability.)

The mature eagle left with a full belly and the three-year birds tolerated each other as they approached the possum to feed. The youngest stood back and I grew cold and hungry and left for my half-lunch at 11:47.

After a crispy chicken sandwich and a small chocolate sundae, I was returning and was amazed for the second time of the day when I counted five eagles in the field standing at different distances from the possum remains as I was approaching the park’s parking lot. As I was writing observations in my notebook and mounting my scope to my window, one of the eagles flew away before I could age it. It was 12:18.

At 12:22, two third-year birds were feeding on the possum as two younger birds stood back ten or more feet. A crow landed about a yard away and started sneaking toward the remains, snatching bites from the ground that had sprung from pulled flesh as two eagles went about harvesting their meals. Crows are supposed to be one of the smartest birds in North America. However, I had doubts about the crow that I watched for three minutes since I wondered if it was going to become fresh dessert for the eagles. So, good luck to Corvus when dining with eagles.

By 12:30, the mature eagle returned with a fly-over but did not land. After it passed, the last two eagles launched to leave the area. Within a minute, I too left for home.

I returned the next day at 12:46 to find a Red-tailed Hawk picking and pulling at the possum remains. The hawk was having some success with what looked like the thin flesh that covers bones. I didn’t stay long since the temperature was 28 degrees and I was watching again with my scope mounted in my open window. I left at 12:53 and the hawk was still pulling at the extra thin possum.

After seeing as many as five eagles in one gathering, yes, I will be looking up and around more. Another sighting took place on January 10 when a mature Bald Eagle flew over the Ohio Wesleyan Campus less than thirty feet above the buildings in late afternoon as I arrived to fill the bird feeders in front of the Chappelear Drama Center. The very next day, an immature eagle followed a similar path at a similar time. Both eagles had flown toward the Olentangy River that flows through Delaware. Numerous times I have seen eagles perched in Sycamore trees along the river.

Soaring eagles earn their nickname, “flying boards” since their wings line up in a straight line across their backs when they soar. Turkey Vultures are also large, but they form a dihedral form when they soar. I frequently see eagles soaring over Delaware and throughout the countryside.

One ominous question: will eagles hunt outdoor cats and small dogs? So far, I have never heard of such happenings, but it might be best to never allow small pets to be outside without your nearby presence. Decades ago, park rangers at Delaware State Park had watched two Bald Eagles feed upon a red fox that had tried to cross a frozen Delaware Lake, so a small dog might also qualify as lunch.

Well, that’s it for now. Eagle on!