Eagles feed baby hawk, because parenthood makes you crazy
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.