We have been talking a lot lately about the growth of eaglets while they are still in the nest, soon most of that growth will dissipate, but there are two things that will continue to grow their entire lives, their beak and their talons.
An eagle’s beak and talons are made out the same thing that our finger nails are made out of, Keratin. Keratin is a tough, fibrous protein that is the main structural components of hair, nails horns, feathers, and hooves. Individual keratin molecules are entwined helically around each other, (like DNA), in long filaments. I don’t expect everyone to totally understand what this means, (I’m not even sure If I do!) but just know that the twisting and cross-linking of these filaments to each other is what produces the toughness and strength.
In the wild the continuous use of the eagles’ talons by catching their prey and landing on other surfaces such as rocks and tree branches, will naturally break and wear down their talons. Eagles also exhibit a behavior called “feaking,” which is where they rub their beaks on the side of a rock or a branch. Not only does this act help clean off the blood from their meal, but it also wears down the sides of their beaks so it does not over grow.
However, for our eagles at the National Eagle Center (NEC), we have to help them out with this. Our birds are not able to catch different things and land on different surfaces, the perches that we have are made out of soft rope and Astroturf, which is good for the overall health of their feet, but does not do much for their talons. Since our birds have these soft perches, and a very high protein diet, compared to birds in the wild, their beaks and talons tend to overgrow. In order to keep our birds nice and healthy we have to do a couple of things to help them out.
In order to keep our bird’s beaks from over growing, we have to “cope” their beaks. In other words we take a Dremel cutting tool and literally grind down the sides of their beaks. As you can imagine, this is a lot like going to the dentist, so the birds hate having this done to them. At the NEC we want to be the “good guys” so when it comes time for them to get their beaks coped we send them to the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, and they do it for us, and they get to be the “bad guys”.
As for their talons we use the same technique and grind them to the right shape, but again the birds do not like this. What we have been doing lately instead is having our birds stand in a tub of water for a long period of time. This is the same principle as cutting your fingernails after you get out of the shower; they are a lot softer and easier to cut. It is not as easy as you think to make our birds stand in water, don’t get me wrong, our eagles love the water, but for them they have to be in the water for a long time. After their extended manicure in the water, we can literally take our fingers and scrape of the excess growth.
National Eagle Center