Eagles can let go: Talon locking bogus

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2007

An eagle is sometimes spotted in the water, talons latched on a heavy salmon, laboriously rowing to shore with its wings.

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It's a clumsy swimming style, but it works. It's said that the eagle can't let go - that the talons somehow lock onto the fish. That's not true. There is no involuntary locking mechanism. The eagle could let go if it wished. The hungry bird has simply decided the meal is worth the swim.

Biologist Mike Jacobson said that over the years a number of eagles have been observed grabbing fish and getting pulled underwater. He said it's not because they can't release their talons.

"They can let go," he said.

"It's common for them to get a hold of a fish that's too heavy to fly with," he said. "They can't take off but they can tow it to shore, rowing with their wings. They're pretty good swimmers. They have thick down so they float pretty well. Occasionally they'll drown if they're too far from shore."

State wildlife biologist Rich Lowell of Petersburg said it's not unusual for eagles to end up in the water. His office next door to a fish processing plant overlooks the water, and he's seen an eagle intentionally land on the water to pick up fish scraps discarded by the workers.

He said contrary to popular belief, an eagle can take off from the surface of the water as long as it does not sit there too long and get its wings wet. He added that while eagles can certainly lock on with their talons, it is a purely voluntary action and they can release at will.

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