Eagles on the prowl for wild snacks

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2008

On a recent trip to a commercial center in the Mendenhall Valley, I stopped to watch a group of about 15 ravens, all clustered around some chunks of bread strewn on the snow. They were soon joined by a gang of immature, gray glaucous-winged gulls, raucous and pushy, as usual.

Suddenly, right next to the passenger side of my car, just below the level of the window, there was a huge flurry of wings, broad and brown, and the gulls and ravens scattered in all directions.

All but one hapless gull, firmly grasped in the adult eagle's powerful talons! The eagle hopped about 15 yards off in the deep snow, dragging its fluttering victim. Then the clumps of gray feathers began to fly, as the eagle plucked its still-quivering prey. In just a few minutes, the eagle was lunching on nice little red snippets of fresh meat, and the prey was still. A bit later, the eagle took off, lugging the now-tattered and bedraggled gull, presumably to find a quiet spot for some serious eating. (A glaucous-winged gull weighs over two pounds, so this was a fair load for the hungry eagle).

While the eagle was subduing its victim and clearing away indigestible feathers, most of the ravens came back and gobbled up the remaining hunks of bread. But none of those pushy gulls came back!

There's a house in the valley that nearly always has a bunch of ravens and magpies hanging around, presumably because the resident humans provide a regular feast. Recently I noticed that six or eight eagles had joined the throng or sat, watching, in nearby trees. My first thought was that the humans had added meat scraps to the feast. But after watching that scene in which an eagle captured a gull, I began to suspect that these eagles were there because they had hopes of spotting a preoccupied raven or magpie.

In the past, I watched an immature eagle that was clamped onto a raven in the snow, while a group of other ravens stood around and yelled. That eagle looked rather undecided about what to do next, and eventually its victim, still very much alive, struggled free and hobbled off into the brush and disappeared.

Eagles commonly hunt ducks in Gastineau Channel, Auke Bay, and other places around here where flocks congregate to feed. One can find heaps of mallard feathers here and there out on the tide flats, as mute evidence of successful predation. Although eagles are thought to make most of their living from fish and carrion, groups of foraging birds (sufficiently large to be worth the effort) are apparently also at risk, even well inland from the shores.

I find it thoroughly satisfying to live in a place where I can observe such fascinating interactions right in the midst of civilization!

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology and a Trail Mix board member.

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