For the Birds Radio Program: Close Encounter of the Eagle Kind

Original Air Date: Nov. 4, 2008 Rerun Dates: Dec. 27, 2017; Oct. 21, 2016; Oct. 28, 2013; Nov. 18, 2011; Nov. 17, 2009

Eagles have developed a taste for venison, which led to Lisa Johnson having a close encounter.

Duration: 4′26″


We all think of Bald Eagles as fish-eating raptors, but more and more they’ve developed a taste for venison. Every time I’ve driven back and forth from Duluth to Ithaca this year, I’ve seen at least two eagles feeding on road-killed deer along Highway 53 in Wisconsin. The eagles have adjusted to traffic in one way—they pay no attention to cars roaring past at well above the 65 miles per hour speed limit—but their huge wingspan makes it difficult for them to maneuver safely getting down to those deer in the first place—I can think of at least four times that I’ve had to brake or change lanes to avoid hitting them, and at least once an eagle came within just inches of my windshield. Took my breath away, in both the good way and the bad way.

On major roads, eagles do expect the cars to keep going, so you’re virtually never going to have a good photo op if you pull over, unless you give it a lot of space and use a very long lens.

My good friend Lisa Johnson and a friend of hers had a close encounter of the eagle kind this weekend—they came upon a huge young eagle eating a dead deer along the side of a road, and just as they were driving through, an adult eagle flew in, barely missing their car. Now eagles have as much as an 8-foot wingspan, just inches less than the maximum legal width of a semi-tractor trailer truck and considerably bigger than the Neon Lisa and her friend were in, but the heaviest Alaskan Bald Eagle females—as big as eagles get in the natural world—weigh only about 14 pounds, about what my little dog Photon weighs. The weight is considerably smaller than that of a Neon, and really isn’t much at all considering the huge wingspan, but it’s plenty enough at 65 miles per hour to do a lot of damage to both the car and the eagle. Fortunately, evasive action by both the driver and the eagle prevented a tragic end for anyone, but this is the kind of scary encounter that we’d all just as soon avoid.

Despite the disruption, the adult eagle flew straight in to join the young eagle at the veritable venison feast—apparently eagles don’t lose their appetites in the aftermath of these close encounters—but that’s when Lisa’s friend made his mistake—he pulled over for a better look. Eagles would far rather deal with speeding cars than even the slowest-moving humans, so both birds took off and landed in a nearby tree. They’re sitting on the same branch, making the size difference between them obvious. When baby eagles leave the nest, they’re invariably heavier than both their parents, and their wingspan is larger because their flight feathers are the longest they’ll ever be. Apparently nature has furnished baby eagles with the flying equivalent of training wheels. Their wings are a bit clumsier and slower than they’ll be as their more streamlined adult flight feathers molt in, but help keep them up as they learn to negotiate the sky. The body size was so much larger that I suspect the young bird was a female and the adult a male—as is the case with almost all raptors, female Bald Eagles are significantly larger than males. I’ll be posting Lisa’s photos of the two side-by-side birds on my webpage later today just in case you’d like to see the size difference.

Eventually the humans drove off, and presumably the eagles went back to their dinner. It’s lovely when our lives intersect those of eagles, at least when they don’t intersect too closely.