Guest Post: Birdchick – Are sea eagles coming after your children?

Guest Post: Birdchick – Are sea eagles coming after your children?

Can white-tailed sea eagles reintroduced into Britain attack people or carry away small children? We asked Sharon Stiteler, also known as Birdchick, to give us her perspective!

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The Telegraph reported this week on a warning from the Scottish Gamekeepers Association that reintroduced White-tailed Sea Eagles could become so habitualized to humans they could attack people and children could be in danger. They even want the government to come up with an exit strategy in case the eagles need to be removed.Dude. I will fuck you up. Particularly if your name is Farquharson.

My opinion? To quote Colonel Potter from the M*A*S*H* TV series, “Horse Hockey.” The Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds also released a similar statement calling this is a bunch of alarmist nonsense.

Raptors have been under persecution for years in Scotland with poisoning and trapping. There’s some concern that the illegal killing is the result of gamekeepers from hunting estates going to extreme and illegal measures to protect prey intended for humans to hunt. A famous case went to trial this spring of a National Trust gamekeeper who was caught on camera using a cage with a pigeon to trap a Sparrowhawk.

The concern over the released eagles stems from a report by The Very Reverend Hunter Farquharson who found one of his domestic geese dead with an eagle perched nearby. He went to chase the eagle away and he claimed that the bird jumped on his back, tore his shirt and caused a 4-inch wound below his shoulder and cuts to his head. From here the SGA jumped to conclusion that children could be in danger and that the government needs to come with an “exit strategy” to deal with menacing eagles.I am so embarrassed right now.

Could the eagle have killed the goose? It could have. Could the goose have died from some other cause and the eagle took advantage of an easy meal? It very well could have. Could this attack on the Very Reverend be an indicator that eagles are going to attack children? Hardly. Could the SGA be over blowing this story to prevent more birds of prey showing up in the area and in a vain effort to prevent game species from being predated on naturally rather than hunters killing them? Very well could be.

The Very Reverend was nobly trying to save his dead goose from the bird—what pet owner wouldn’t go to such measures? If he was indeed injured by the eagle, it was because the eagle felt the man was stealing the goose it was going to eat. An eagle defending its food source from a human is not going to lead to eagles feasting on children.

Eagles attacking pets, livestock and children is nothing new. An urban legend that crops up every 3 months or so to my website is, “My friend has a cabin and they said that their neighbor told them about a mother who was hanging up laundry outside her cabin and had her four month old child on a blanket. She stepped inside for just a moment and when she returned outside the child was gone. Police searched and searched and couldn’t find the baby. About a month later, the DNR found the baby’s clothes in a Bald Eagle nest. They are now paying off the family so people won’t go around shooting Bald Eagles.”Lookit these talons n shit, people!

The first tip that this story is untrue is that no state has a Department of Natural Resources flush enough to pay money to a family who has lost a baby. But let’s get into the main reason why children are safe from eagles: we’re too big!

The eagle in question in Scotland is Haliaeetus ablicilla and can weigh anywhere from 7 – 15 pounds, very similar to the North American version the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Most of the Bald Eagles I have encountered in Minnesota have been in the 10 – 12 pound range.

Generally, birds of prey can only carry about half their weight in flight. One of the few exceptions is the Great Horned Owl, which averages about 3 pounds and is capable to carry its own weight in flight. So, even if you have the grandest of all eagles in your community that is pushing 14 pounds, it is not going to fly off with a four-month-old child. Even if a newborn baby were left outside, the shape and the head are not desirable for an eagle prey item and birds of prey have learned over the years to not mess with humans. Eagles can go after extreme prey items but they are not going to fly off with our children.

About the Author:


Sharon Stiteler is the founder of Birdchick.com and has made it her goal to get paid to go birding since 1997. She’s written for WildBird Magazine, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Birds & Blooms, Outdoor News, appeared on NBC Nightly News and local TV and radio in the Twin Cities. She wrote the books City Birds/Country Birds and Disapproving Rabbits. She bands birds, conducts bird surveys and works as a National Park Ranger. She also is a nature photographer and has a blue ribbon winging beekeeping operation with Neil Gaiman.

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

15 Comments

  1. You have to remember, humans are at the TOP of the food chain. Logically, don’t piss off or mess with an animal, especially one that has huge talons or weighs 10 times as you, because you as an individual might get hurt, but there’s no way in hell the animal will likely want to hurt humans as a species. They have learned to survive, messing with humans is not the way to go. Some humans have not yet learned that philosophy, so our evolution seems to be faltering…

    PS: Love the rollergirls jacket!

  2. Sharon, in your picture you appear to be using a live eagle as an umbrella. That’s AWESOME!! Is there a little button on the legs that you can press to make the wings pop out? I am constantly losing umbrellas, so if you ever decide to sell your “eagl-brella” please let me know. I would be far less likely to leave an eagl-brella on the bus.

    As for the idea of birds being able to pick up small children, I must admit that I find it pretty hard to believe. But really the only way to be sure is to run some experiments. Perhaps if you could collect a sufficiently large sample of small children, you could then let them wander around in a field surrounded by large birds of prey. Since the children alone might not be tempting enough, you might need to tie dead rabbits to their heads. That ought to answer the question once and for all. Let us know how the experiment turns out!

  3. Thanks for the helpful and thorough info! It’s fun to see a smart, outspoken, skeptical rollergirl (or fan anyway!) out and about on the internet.

  4. Great piece!

    My mother has a goose that wears a diaper just like the one pictured. It’s actually quite amazing how well sighted they are as far as spotting raptors is concerned. Every now and then, we’ll all be in the yard and she’ll start honking at the sky and moving to the bushes while we strain to see the hawk circling far above.

  5. Great article! Birdchick.com has now been added to my favourites :)

    This reminds me of one of NZ’s extinct raptors, the Haast’s Eagle. It’s reckoned to have become extinct around 1400. And, it was a HUGE raptor! –>The females are estimated to have weighed 10–15 kg (22–33 lb) and males 9–12 kg (20–26 lb). That’s 30% larger than the largest living eagle (the South American Harpy). In fact, it is the largest eagle ever known!

    They would attack prey using their talons as large as tiger claws, coming in with a high-speed strike at up to 80km/hr. Once they had disabled the prey, they would then kill it and eat it on the spot.

    There’s evidence of talon marks on Moa bones (extinct flightless NZ ratites). This is very cool because some species of Moa weighed over 200kgs! As for attacking humans, they definitely had the capability of killing one. I mean, OUCH! :P There have been Maori legends of giant human eating birds, some of which could refer to the Haast’s eagle. There is no direct evidence for this however :P. I think that I, myself, might have made up a story or two about one stealing my children if I ever witnessed a bird of that size ;).

    http://www.notornis.org.nz/free_issues/Notornis_39-1992/Notornis_39_4_239.pdf
    http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/theme.aspx?irn=1360

  6. C’mon people, can’t you see they are just like gray wolves with wings!!
    .
    Gray wolves!!
    WITH WINGS!!

  7. I don’t think that the British press are ever going to get a science/nature story right :(

    Generally, birds of prey can only carry about half their weight in flight.

    I’ve seen a Sparrowhawk carry off a pigeon that looked bigger than it. I was mightily impressed. Is this about right?

    • So what is the air speed velocity of an unladen eagle?

  8. This is a love piece. Thank you, Birdchick!

    I can’t lie, though: This is one of those instances where Reality is kind of a letdown.

  9. I can’t beleive you didn’t answer “yes, but only if they’re chopped finely and put in an exposed place”.

    I agree with Matariki – Haast’s Eagle is an awesome bird, the mockup in Te Papa is well worth looking at. I like megafauna, it’s just a pity the local ones are all extinct.

  10. This is ridiculous. There are eagles in Africa that are known to attack children as prey with a far smaller wingspan than sea eagles. They were persecuted because they posed a danger to humans as well as killing livestock. Now I’m not one for saying cull these birds, but I get fed up with the RSPB’s over the top naivete. These are the same people who told us buzzards only eat carrion. Rubbish..they eat live prey and are decimating red squirrel populations in the Isle of Wight. Same with eagle Owls …no threat they cry. Well when one of those Eagles actually does kill or seriously injure a child are these idiots going to stand up and say ‘Sorry’..nah thought not.

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