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Our Polygamous Eagle Neighbors

  Our close neighbors are a very unusual family – not unheard of, but very, very rare – what are the chances…? The family in question is a threesome of bald eagles, consisting of two females and one male. They have lived here together for over ten years, maintaining several lofty nests, fishing and hunting together, bickering with the neighboring pair, and, most amazingly, nesting together.

This area has a pretty dense healthy population of eagles, most pairs living within a mile of each other, but our threesome family has an edge over all the others. They are extremely successful nesters, most years bringing three eaglets to fletching. Now that’s an accomplishment worth bragging about!  All three adults take turns sitting on the eggs, finding food for themselves and later the chicks, and keeping the nest safe from intruders.

The next neighboring eagle pair regularly waits in a distant tree at the end of the cove until the threesome is busy and does not pay close attention. Only then will they venture out across the cove in search of their next meal.  They know how treacherous it is to be attacked by a rival (or two – or three) when one has its talons hooked into a fish with no way to release in flight, therefore being defenseless.

An eagle fight is a sight to be seen. Rivalry is a common occurrence. The attacker comes down onto its rival, who swiftly turns upside down to push the attacker away with its talons. Sometimes they hook up and start tumbling down in a spiral towards the water, one trying to drown the other. Usually they separate before hitting the surface, but not always.

As elegant and acrobatic eagles are in flight, swimming is not their forte. Kayaking around one of the island, we saw a male eagle quite a way from shore, a good size salmon in his talons. He frantically swam towards the beach, using his wings like paddles, his feathers soaking wet, too heavy to take flight. We watched his determined struggle to make it to shore, and he finally climbed up the rocks holding on to his salmon. Exhausted, the eagle sat for a little while, then took his first well deserved bite. That’s when the large female swooped down from the nest, grabbed the salmon and took off. The much smaller male just sat there, staring at the disappearing meal he had worked so hard for.

Eagles look like they have it made. They elegantly soar high above the land and the sea, perform impressive acrobatic flight maneuvers no stunt pilot can rival, or look out from their lofty perch in a tall tree. Being a fletching eaglet however is a scary prospect. In the days before they leave the nest, they spend more and more time sitting at the outside edge, flapping their wings for practice and you can often hear them scream in what sounds like horror at the prospect of having to leave the only home they know. They are now as large as their parents, or appear to be, because their feathers are much broader than those of the adults, to make up in wing size for their clumsy initial flight attempts.

Mom has a way of enticing the young to try their new flying skills. She flies in circles close to the nest and calls for the chicks to join her. One of them finally gathers its courage and takes off. Oh how scary this is!! The eaglet changes its mind about bravery and tries to land on mom. She can’t have this, so she instantly turns upside down and gently pushes junior away. The eaglet flaps its wings awkwardly and heads back towards the treed island. It grabs the branch of a spruce, but that one is not strong enough to hold the big bird, and it ends up clinging like a bat upside down. Eventually the young bird lets go of the branch, trying to fly again. Initially it starts free-falling down, but miraculously it manages to right itself and heads out for another practice fight.  Two more times the eaglet ends up hanging upside down  from a branch, until finally it lands on top of a spruce with a broken off tip. its feathers ruffled, too exhausted to make any sound, the eaglet just sits still on the small treetop platform for a very long time.

The scariest part of growing up is accomplished, the eaglet gets the hang of flying within the next couple of days, while its sibling still sits on the edge of the nest, flapping its wings, crying in fear – or could it be anticipation?