Ea­gles feed baby hawk, be­cause par­ent­hood makes you crazy

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JA­SON BITTEL

Some­time in late May, a pair of bald ea­gles in Bri­tish Columbia’s Shoal Har­bour Mi­gra­tory Bird Sanc­tu­ary snatched up two red­tailed hawk chicks and took them back to their nest. One of those hawk­lets be­came a meal. The other be­came a leg­end.

Some act of fate stayed the ea­gles’ talons that day. Per­haps the way the hawk­let yelped for food, or the curve of its beak, trig­gered some in­stinct in the adult ea­gles, flip­ping a switch from mur­der to nur­ture. In­stead of tear­ing the hawk­let into strips for their three offspring in the nest, the par­ents be­gan feed­ing the new­comer.

The hawk­let now weighs about two pounds, about a sixth as much as his ea­glet nest mates, said David Han­cock, a rap­tor bi­ol­o­gist with the Han­cock Wildlife Foun­da­tion who has been ob­serv­ing this saga. And yet when the adults bring food back to the nest, Han­cock said, the lit­tle dy­namo takes to­tal com­mand.

“I mean he’s got such spunk, you can’t help but ad­mire him,” said Han­cock. “So much gump­tion!”

Last week, the hawk­let — whom some have taken to call­ing Spunky — left the nest for the first time and flew about 200 yards to an­other stand of trees. Good rid­dance, the ea­glet trio prob­a­bly thought. But the joke was on them.

Han­cock says that adult ea­gles typ­i­cally stop bring­ing food back to the nest once their young start to fly. It’s thought that this helps mo­ti­vate the fledglings to stop freeload­ing and strike out on their own. Just one prob­lem: Un­like Spunky, the baby ea­gles can­not yet fly.

A day af­ter Spunky left the nest, the ea­glets had been com­plain­ing so vo­cif­er­ously and for so long that the adult ea­gles gave in and brought a fish. And at pre­cisely this mo­ment, the hawk­let re­turned from his night out and hopped onto the big­gest scrap of sushi. The hawk­let then cov­ered the en­tire meal with his wings, a be­hav­ior known as mantling, which hawks em­ploy to hide their kills from other birds. Barred from the fish they surely thought would be theirs, Han­cock said, the ea­glets sat inches away from their adop­tive sib­ling, star­ing in dis­be­lief as this runt con­tin­ued to get the best of them.

“He lit­er­ally pushed the big guys out of the way,” Han­cock said.

Spunky ate and ate un­til, Han­cock said, his crop was so full that he could hardly stand. And there he sat, in the same po­si­tion, for sev­eral hours.

This au­da­cious hawk­let among ea­gles is an un­usual sight, but it makes sense through the lens of evo­lu­tion.

“The fact that the ea­gles are feed­ing it is ac­tu­ally not sur­pris­ing,” said Christina Riehl, a bi­ol­o­gist at Prince­ton Univer­sity. “Nat­u­ral se­lec­tion has fa­vored parental care in birds over mil­lions of years. And most birds feed their young.”

“There’s no rea­son that bald ea­gles should have evolved to rec­og­nize their own ba­bies,” Riehl said, “be­cause 999 times out of a 1,000, what’s in a bald eagle nest is a baby bald eagle.”

This means that the bald eagle pair in Bri­tish Columbia has nei­ther taken pity on Spunky nor fallen in love. To them, he’s just an­other gap­ing mouth to feed, and one thing birds have evolved to do re­ally well is stuff food into gap­ing mouths.

In fact, this isn’t the first case of a red-tailed hawk be­ing raised by bald ea­gles. Spunky is the third Han­cock has seen. The real ques­tion is what hap­pens next.

Birds such as ea­gles and hawks, species that in­vest a lot of time and en­ergy in parental care, ben­e­fit more from ex­pe­ri­ence-based learn­ing. And this could lead to the hawk­let’s ruin.

For starters, hawks tend to hunt mice and voles, while ea­gles fa­vor fish and road­kill. This means that Spunky may find him­self try­ing to be an eagle with the tools of a hawk.

But the bigger is­sue on Han­cock’s mind is that the hawk­let has made it this far by bul­ly­ing his ea­glet sib­lings — which, he noted, seem much more sub­mis­sive than other ea­glets he has ob­served. If the hawk­let goes out into the world think­ing he can dom­i­nate ea­gles many times his size, the story might come to a close rather quickly.

“I think he’s been learn­ing some bad things for the fu­ture,” Han­cock said.

And if he sur­vives long enough to reach sex­ual ma­tu­rity? Spunky is a red-tailed hawk who hasn’t seen an­other of his kind since his sib­ling was con­verted into lunch be­fore his very eyes a few weeks back. Sci­en­tists who re­ha­bil­i­tate rap­tors usu­ally use pup­pets to feed them, to pre­vent the highly im­pres­sion­able birds from im­print­ing on hu­mans. At this point, we have to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that Spunky be­lieves him­self to be a bald eagle.


A young red-tailed hawk liv­ing in a bald eagle nest is fed by one of the par­ents of three res­i­dent ea­glets, in Sid­ney, Bri­tish Columbia.


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