The next big step is a long way down!

As the baby eaglets develop into fledglings, they are growing at an extremely fast rate.  At 12 to 13 weeks they are the same size as their parents and are really going after the food.  As it was already discussed, the growth of the feathers is a major event that takes a lot of energy; the baby eagles can easily eat over two pounds of food a day!  Once the baby eaglets have most of their feathers grown in, they become what we like to call “Branchers.”  “Branching” is the act of the fledgling eagles jumping from branch to branch flapping their wings and exercising those muscles that are vital for flight.  During this “branching” season is the time when a lot of eaglets miss the branch that they were going for, those new big feet can sometimes get cumbersome, and fall to the ground.  “Branching”, even though it may be dangerous, is an important part of eagle development.  If an eaglet jumps out of the nest and tries to fly before it is ready, it can be a long way to the ground.   Generally eagles start flying at about 14 to 15 weeks, if the eaglets try and stay around the nest and keep getting fed by the parents; soon enough the parents will get sick of feeding them and force them out of the nest.

One particular example, I was called to a nest where one of the eaglets was on the ground, and the other one was in the nest.  As far as I can gather, this particular nest site somehow broke apart and some of it fell to the ground.  When I approached the nest, the male and female were flying around and screaming at me, and I seriously thought that I was going to have to avoid them dive bombing me.  After a few attempts, the parents finally decided to leave the area, and I was able to go about looking for the injured chick. 

When I got up to the tree, I looked up and I saw that there was a head poking out of the lower part of the nest!  Somehow this chick survived the fall from the upper part, and landed in the nest that got caught in the lower crotch of the tree. However for his nest mate, he was not so fortunate.

When I first saw the eaglet, he was sitting on the ground, when I walked over to him he flew up to a stump that was about four feet tall.  I thought to myself, there is nothing wrong with this eagle, if he can jump up to a stump that is 4 feet he definitely does not have a broken wing.   I wanted to make 100% sure that the eaglet was not hurt, so I approached him again and this time he let me get to within about three or so feet.  I was able at that distance to do a very good visual check.  I determined that this eagle was fully capable of flying and defending its self.  The parents will be able to continue to feed a chick that is on the ground.

Then the eagle decided to try and fly again, and this time he had a little air under his wings from being on that stump and he was able to fly about four or five feet off the ground for about 100 yards.  Then as if this bird did not already give me enough trouble, he decided to land in a small creek that was next to the nest.  So I put on my hip waders and decided I would get this chick and dry him off and put him back next to the nest.

Now the eagle was only in about four inches of water, but there was about three feet of mud underneath him!  He was not in to good of a spot for an ideal capture, but I trudged my way through the mud and got a hold of him.  But catching him in three feet of mud was not the hardest part, the hardest part was figuring out how I was going to get up a five foot tall embankment, while holding a struggling eaglet in my hands.  After I had waded downstream, and found a nice sand bar to lay out a blanket and get this eaglet dried off, I was able to take an even closer look at him, and I found that his feathers had not quite grown all the way yet and still had quite a bit of blood sheaths covering the feather. 

After I got the eaglet mostly dried off, I was able to set him in a tree next to the nest.  I suspected that the eaglet had about a week to a week and a half of growth left on his feathers and then he would be able to fly fully.  I did return about four weeks later and there was not sight of either eagle around.

Joe Krumrie
Education specialist