April 16, 2011 Breaking news: Hatch day is coming

Hatch day is coming!! Here at the National Eagle Center we use Earth day to advance the ages of all our eagles.  Several or our eagles were hatched in Wisconsin  sometime in April, so Earth Day seemed like a good day to utilize for hatch day parties.  In fact we have a very special hath day happening at the NEC this year, Harriet the eagle will be turning 30 years old!!  We hope to have a nice hatch day party for her with lots of hatch day cake, hatch day cupcakes, and we will all wear hatch day hats and put up lots of hatch day balloons.  We will also be sure to give her lots of hatch day presents.  If you are interested in giving Harriett a hatch day present you will probably be wondering about her size.  Well her favorite size, of fish, is one that is about six inches long and weighs about half a pound, this size typically works for a rat as well.  Speaking of hatching let us talk a little about that process.

The eagle egg is very similar in size to a goose’s egg.  The egg weighs about 144 grams which is about 5 ounces. Its shape is similar to a chicken egg and it is an off white to ivory in color and occasionally has some faint blotches of brown, but very different from a golden eagles egg, which has many blotches and streaks of ruddy brown.  Bald eagles will typically lay two to three eggs and in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, they are usually laid by the first week of March.  Egg laying in the Northern sections of these states will typically take place in mid to late March.

The eggs will hatch in the order they were laid, because as soon as the first egg is laid the eagle will begin incubation of that egg and then a day to several days later she will lay the next egg, but because she began incubation right away, they will hatch at different times.  This is very different from the American Robins that our now returning to our area.  The female robin will lay an egg, then leave the nest, come back the next day, and lay another egg; she will do this process until the last egg has been laid, it is then that she will begin incubation of the eggs.  This will mean that the baby robins will all hatch at approximately the same time. When the parents bring back food to the nest the robin parents will feed the babies equally, this will be very different from the way the eaglets will be fed, but that will deserve another paragraph later on, for now let’s get back to taking about the eggs.

Eaglets break through the shell by using their egg tooth, which is a pointed bump on the top of the beak, this process is called pipping. It can take from twelve to fifty hours to hatch after making the first break in the shell (pipping). During this process, you will observe the parent eagle seem like she is aware that this is going on beneath her.  She may be able to feel this process going on but she can also hear some of the pipping process as well. Once the eggs begin to hatch, the female's vigilance becomes nearly constant. When the pipping process starts, food is occasionally brought to the nest as if in preparation for the forthcoming hatching.   Newly hatched, eaglets are soft looking and have grayish-white down that covers their small bodies.  At this stage, they have small wobbly legs that are too weak to hold their weight. The eyes are partially closed with little vision at this stage, especially compared to what their eyesight will be like as an adult. At this young age the chicks are very vulnerable and will rely on round the clock care from their parents Early on the female will be doing most of the care at the nest while the male will provide most of the food for the rapidly growing family. Eventually the female will take up her share of the hunting.

The Eagles will bring back whole pieces of prey back to the nest and use their sharp beaks like a knife and fork to rip and tear the prey into smaller pieces of meat. The eagle parent will gently coax her tiny chick to take a morsel of meat from her beak.  It is amazing how dexterous the eagle can be with this massive beak.  She will offer food repeatedly, eating rejected morsels herself, and then tearing off another piece for the eaglet.

I think some of the most fun for us eagle cam watchers will be to see what types of food they will bring back to the nest.  We know that the bald eagle belongs to the fish or sea eagle family (Haliaeetus) and most members of this family (8 worldwide) live near aquatic habitats and feed primarily on fish.  We at the National Eagle Center like to call bald eagles opportunistic predators, as yes they do feed a lot on fish, but will take advantage of a wide variety of prey.  I have seen eagles chase and kill live rabbits, muskrats, snakes, ducks, coots, but I have also seen them feeding on carrion (dead animals) along the river or along the side of the road, so they are going to take advantage of whatever prey they have the “opportunity” to catch.  Speaking of whatever opportunities they can catch, a, local family in Kenyon Minnesota reportedly almost lost their seven-pound toy poodle to an opportunistic bald eagle that grabbed the dog from along a creek and lifted the dog high into the air.  The excess weight and the struggling of the dog forced the eagle to drop Peanuts the poodle to the ground. After some veterinary care to suture eight puncture wounds, the dog has lived to tell its harrowing tale to all its friends down at the local fire hydrant!  I do want to state that this is a very rare event and the reports of bald eagle nests with dozens of cat and dog collars in them are just not true in my opinion.  Everyone who has ever told me a story about all the collars found in a nest have not ever been able to back up the stories with photos or any other kind of proof, but it does make for a good story, A STORY.

So let us watch the nest and see what the eagles are bringing back for lunch.
Do not to forget to tell your friends about this cool opportunity to watch first hand, our nation’s symbol, continuing to increase in numbers.
Scott Mehus
Wabasha, MN