Note: this is a repost from April 2011
My partner Sally’s been keeping a close eye on the eagle cam. This is the camera trained 24/7 (it has infra-red capabilities, in the dark) on a bald eagles’ nest, high up in a cottonwood tree in Iowa. You can go online and see the pair of eagles and their young in real time, any time.
As we watch, the three chicks in the nest are growing at an almost alarming pace. The parent eagles fly off one at a time to gather food, which consists of a variety of dead animals and parts of dead animals. In my first viewing, I could clearly see what looked like the tail feathers of a crow, sticking up from the straw that lines the nest. (Those leftovers were soon tamped down in the nesting material and reduced to a little dark splotch on the video picture.) Next to the crow remains I saw a long, thin carcass that looked gray and furry – probably a rabbit.
Later the food pile was augmented with a whole fish – a pretty big one, maybe fourteen inches or so, and another furry, mink-colored carcass. The adults rip off bits of the carcasses and stick them into the open beaks of the downy, bobble-headed young. Despite the babies’ healthy appetites, the food does seem to be piling up.
Thinking about all that dead meat sitting there unrefrigerated, I asked Sally: “Can you imagine how it smells in that nest?” Soon after my comment, she reported seeing flies buzzing around; and when it got really warm recently, we saw Mama Eagle (or Daddy? we’re not entirely sure) snapping away at them with her iconic beak. By that time the food pile included what looked like a couple of legs (they were long, roughly cylindrical, and covered with matted fur.) All of which I think confirms my suspicion: it stinks to high heaven up there in the eyrie.
Then I got to thinking: eagles probably don’t mind the smell (even if the flies vex them). In fact, maybe they like it, that pungent aroma of dead fish and animal carcass decomposing. I pictured the baby eagles when they’re all grown up, flying low over a landfill some day, or maybe a packing house, and saying: “Aw gee, that smells just like the nest used to smell… Good times, good times…”
Ok, it’s pretty fanciful – bald eagles probably aren’t sentimental, and my friend Filis, a bird lover, tells me they haven’t much of a sense of smell. But they do seem a bit like humans at times – at least, we’ve had no trouble finding similarities. As I said, we’re not absolutely sure – but from the FAQs on the website, I think I can tell which parent is the male, and which the female. Mama Eagle is bigger, her white head feathers look a little scruffier, and she’s more often the one sitting on the nest. Anyway, we don’t let our uncertainty keep us from anthropomorphizing. We watched one evening as the bird we think is the male landed in the nest carrying a big stick in his beak, which he positioned along the edge in a way that made us think he was installing a child gate. His mate didn’t seem appreciative – she got kind of agitated, and we wondered if she was doing the eagle equivalent of saying, “What are you doing with that thing?” or maybe “You’ve been gone four hours and you brought home a stick? Where’s that trout you promised me?” Because basically, it did seem a little like he’d been hanging out at the pool hall all afternoon, and finding himself late and empty-handed (or empty-taloned), grabbed the first stick he found in the parking lot before heading home.
Sometimes we see the parent eagle nodding off and think how difficult and boring it must be, to sit hour after hour huddled over the babies, covering them with your body so that they stay warm and protected. And yes, the entire family survived the recent tornadoes in Iowa.
If you haven’t given it a look, tune into the eagle cam. It’s one of the few reality shows around whose authenticity cannot be questioned.
To view go to: http://www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles