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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.