For the Birds Radio Program: Eagles Mating (UDY)
Paul Scott from South Range, Wisconsin, came upon Bald Eagles mating on “the muddiest day of mud season.”
Last month I received a letter from Paul Scott from South Range, Wisconsin, relating a curious event that happened in early April, on what he said was “the muddiest day of mud season.” He writes:
I was alone and returning from work. (In spring that means leaving the car at the foot of our private road and tramping the final 1 1/4 mile.) Near our house, I heard shrieks, unidentifiable and close. Watching the bush, I just made out some movement—a mammal? Two mammals? Shrugging the pack that I carried, I carefully picked my way over the snow into the bush.
The critter or critters didn’t suspect they had company. Their shrieks continued (by now I had determined that there were two sets of shrieks). Then I saw a pair of large wings flapping.
Suddenly I saw at just the instant that they saw me. Two mature Bald Eagles were on the ground near a rotting log. One slunk off like a grouse. The other began slinking off but soon flew several feet in the air, dodging trees. I withdrew.
The next morning, I returned to the site. Brown leaves were strewn on the snow and there were prints from their feet and wings. I measured the distance from my tracks to their tracks—65 feet. There were no feathers.
It is not unusual to see an eagle and not rare to see a mature one with its distinctive head and tail without the aid of binoculars. It’s always thrilling to see one, but this experience is one of the happy wonders of living.
Paul’s eagles were most likely mating when he discovered them. Many species of birds solicit mating by flapping their wings much the way baby birds beg for food. I suspect that the slower bird to take off was the female—in birds that I have observed, the female always sits still for a few minutes after mating, probably to ensure fertilization. Paul’s eagles probably found what they thought was a nice hideaway for a romantic rendezvous and were busy whooping it up until he chanced upon them.
Although Bald Eagles are famous for their spectacular nuptial flight, actually consummating the mating act doesn’t occur in the air. Unlike Arthur Dent and Fenchurch’s anti-gravity lovemaking in the Hitchhiker’s trilogy, eagles will ignominiously drop to the ground if they stop paying attention to their flying. Birds weighing 8–14 pounds have to keep their wings spread and their minds on piloting while airborne. But so few people have witnessed eagles actually mating that none of the common ornithological references say whether they most commonly do it in their nesting tree, on the ground, or somewhere else.
Bald Eagles are such conspicuous birds that they’d be especially vulnerable to enemies while absorbed in mating. They protect themselves from being caught in the act by taking great care in arranging their romantic liaisons in the first place—sort of the way human parents of small children must do. That’s why so few ornithologists know anything about an eagle’s most intimate moments. Yep: Birds do it, bees do it, and even educated fleas do it. But Paul Scott is one of the few people in the world who have seen Bald Eagles do it.