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A Bird in Hand

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photo by Jay Mock photo by Jay Mock

Les majestes royales - the Bald Eagle



Singularly, the bird most laden with symbolism in our area would have to be the Bald Eagle. Not only is it the animal symbol of our country, being fixed to practically every seal of office or institution in the United States government, but to many it is the definitive symbol of wilderness. When people visiting our area see their first Bald Eagle, it validates in their minds that they are visiting a genuine wilderness. That could be argued; after all, what constitutes being a wilderness? Lack of a shopping mall? That fact that our area has more eagles than thirty years ago, as well as more people and more development, reminds us that appearances do not always constitute reality.

Nonetheless, Bald Eagles are meaningful to us. Beyond their symbolism they are quite fascinating birds in their own right. I would still be entranced by the Bald Eagle even if the turkey had been chosen in its stead as our national symbol—which Benjamin Franklin thought to be a far more respectable bird. But what can you expect from old Ben? He flew kites with wire leads during thunderstorms. And by the way, the bald in Bald Eagle is short for piebald; that is, contrasting dark and white coloring.  

The Bald Eagle is a big bird which, along with the Golden Eagle, is the largest raptor in North America. Though the Bald Eagle is exclusive to this continent it does have a very close cousin—the White-tailed Eagle —that exploits the same ecological niche in northern Europe and Asia. Basically, the White-tail looks like the Bald Eagle sans the white head. As is common with raptors, the female eagle is larger than the male. So maybe we ought to refer to the eagle as the queen of birds? There are two sub-species, the northern and the southern, which separate roughly along the 38th parallel. The northern subspecies is the larger of the two.

A fascinating quality of the Bald Eagle is its adaptability. It is not necessarily a specialist, and can survive on a variety of game. Its specific locale seems to be the biggest determinant as to what food it primarily exploits. Bald Eagles are very adept at fishing and few sights are more wondrous in our area than to see an eagle swoop down and gingerly grab a fish from the water. But they will also steal from ospreys, feed on carrion, or grab a duck as the occasion permits. In fact, there might very well be two populations of Bald Eagle in our area: one that is resident and feeds primarily on fish, and one that is a transient and follows the migrating waterfowl as they travel north and south with the change in seasons, like wolves following a caribou herd.

A large Bald Eagle can spread its wings 80 inches and weigh in at some fifteen pounds, though the normal range for weight extends to half of that. A problem that many beginning birders have with identifying Bald Eagles is the fact that only the adults have the signature white head and tail feathers. Immature birds are as large as the adults, but wear a molted brown plumage for three or four years before finally getting the adult color pattern. In the meantime, many birders assume that these large brown birds are Golden Eagles.

Golden Eagles are less common than Bald Eagles in our area. They are also big birds, and for all intents and purposes the same size as the Bald Eagle. Unlike the Bald, Goldens are cosmopolitan, ranging across Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, as well as North America. They are only distant relatives of the Bald Eagle, being classified in a different genus. Their favorite prey is anything with fur, ideally a hare or ground squirrel. But they are also opportunistic and will take mice, lambs, or even other birds. I most often see Goldens along the Clark Fork highway in the late winter or early spring when they are feeding on road-killed deer. Look for a mob of ravens waiting patiently around a deer carcass while a large brown raptor leisurely dines.

Golden Eagles also have a long maturation period and do not sport adult plumage for at least three years. To add to the confusion, these immature birds might carry broad white bands on their tail feathers and white markings on their wings. Even for the experienced birder, juvenile Bald Eagles and juvenile Golden Eagles are difficult to differentiate. Study your bird guide before hitting the field. One helpful hint is the fact that Golden Eagles have feathers covering their legs, whereas Bald Eagles do not.  

Now, to think about Christmas. Over the course of time people have asked me to recommend a birding field guide to be used in their own pursuit of this fascinating subject. This is easy for me, for there is only one book I recommend: The Sibley Guide to Birds.  To me there is nothing comparable to own or as compelling to use than the Sibley guide. The only real problem with it is that is not a pocket book, but that doesn’t keep me from taking it with me on my birding expeditions. So, for that special birder in your life, whether novice or experienced, I recommend Sibley for Christmas.

Mike Turnlund is a teacher at Clark Fork High School and an accomplished birder.

Eagle photo by Jay Mock      

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, eagle, bald eagle, golden eagle

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