More gratitude goes to the people who pushed for the Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. These laws and their restrictions brought America’s symbol back from the perilous brink of extinction.
The bald eagle’s comeback story, like the story of our landing on the moon, demonstrate that when America has the political will, we can do anything.
Let’s celebrate and be thankful that once again, it’s breeding season for bald eagles. And rather than tell you a tale that begins, “Once upon a time,” I’m excited to tell you the real-time story of brothers Eddie and Martin and how they and thousands of other bald eagles grow up.
See also: Bald Eagle Facts and Trivia
Courtship among Eddie’s and Martin’s parents involve an impressive display of aerial acrobatics. They swoop, perform cartwheels, and exchange sticks in mid-air.
They also complete the amazing death spiral.
In a death spiral, eagles interlock their talons while flying high, mimic a skydiver who’s chute hasn’t opened, and then separate just when you think there’s no hope.
There are times, however, when not everything goes as planned.
See also: Talons VS Claws: What’s the Difference?
The death spiral is a behavior performed during pair-bonding, play, and aggression and occurs among different age and sex combinations.
Building a Nest
When Eddie and Martin’s parents complete their first aerie (that’s what you call an eagle’s nest, and you can also spell it eyry, eyrie, or aery) it’ll be of average size. It’ll start out measuring 4 to 5 feet across and 2 to 4 feet deep. As nests go, a bald eagle’s nest is the largest among North American birds.
Every year Eddie’s and Martin’s parents are together, they’ll return to the same nest. They’ll work together and weave one or two more feet of new sticks into the ones already there. They’ll also reline the interior with corn stalks, moss, grasses, and some of their own downy feathers.
Like their family and friends, Mom and Dad will look for for a clean body of fresh water and a tall, living tree between 50 and 125 feet high. They’ll built their home in a fork among sturdy limbs close to the trunk and about three-quarters of the way up. From such a vantage point, they’ll enjoy had a wide view and have plenty of fish to keep their family fed.
See also: A Bird Nest is an Engineering Marvel
From Eggs to Hatchlings
Between five and 1o days after mating, an eagle will lay her eggs. Typically, there will be two eggs and she can lay them between three and six days apart. After another 35 days or so, during which mom and dad incubate the eggs, they’ll hatch in the order laid.
Mom lays Eddie’s egg first. It’ll can take him up to two days to emerge fully from his shell. When he does, he’ll be wet, exhausted, and blind for several hours until his eyes open. Since Eddie can’t regulate his own body temperature yet, his mom will take special care brooding him, so he won’t freeze.
In this case, Martin, Eddie’s younger brother, is born four days later and completes the little family.
Starting out at about three ounces, Eddie has a head start on Martin. He’ll have four days to feed and grow in strength and size. And eagles being what they are, Eddie will likely be aggressive toward his younger brother. He’ll instinctively want a bigger share of the food. In an alternate ending, Eddie could kill Martin.
You can watch an eagle breaking free of its shell if you click here.
The family photo album includes pictures of the sibs at three weeks old. They’re precious eaglets and look like white fluffy balls of feather. So cute, but later pictures show strange things happening.
Starting at five weeks, Eddie and Martin change color. Pictures from a few weeks later show they’re completely gray and have the biggest clown feet you’ll ever see. Their feet are bright yellow and completely disproportionate to their body size. They look like they’re about to fall over.
We can call it “their awkward stage.”
Even so, life in the nest is good.
Since becoming hatchlings, their parents have been taking turns keeping them warm. But because Mom is bigger than Dad, she does most of the sitting during the colder weather and storms.
Dad and mom work together to defend the nest from other eagles who threatened the area. And they do a good job chasing off owls and others who might mistake their sons for a meal.
They also share hunting duty, although Mom tears up the meal and feeds them.
Eddie and Martin are growing boys and eat several times a day. Their favorite food is fish. Sometimes their parents switch up the menu and serve a squirrel, duck, rabbit, or something another animal left behind. (Mom and Dad aren’t ones to waste food.)
And like all brothers, the boys occasionally fight. But mostly, they eat and sleep.
Life as an eaglet is good, but Eddie and Martin will quickly approach the time when they will leave the only home they’ve ever known.
See also: Is it Safe to Use Drones Around Birds?
Around 12 weeks after Eddie and Martin hatch, Mom and Dad will be eager for them to fledge.
At this point, the brothers have been flexing and flapping their wings for several weeks. Their brown feathers with white markings have hardened enough to catch the air. They’re much bigger now, and they’re crowding the nest.
But how do you oust from the nest two eagles who’ve lived their entire lives at home and have never had to lift a talon to get a meal?
You stop feeding them.
Eagle parents don’t let their young starve to death. But they do let them get hungry. And with enough coaxing and empty bellies, Eddie and Martin eventually figure out they’ve got to leave.
After some name calling, during which Eddie asks Martin if he’s a chicken, Martin musters the courage.
He hops to the edge of the nest…
Looks down and around…
Hesitates and adjusts his position…
And then Martin leans forward and steps off.
His first attempt at flight isn’t too bad. It’s a combo jump / flap, flap / glide / flap, flap, flap / grab-the-nearest-branch effort. Eddie does the same, only he misses his first branch grab. A few extra flaps and he lands on another branch just below his brother.
They perch like that for a long time. It feels good to stretch.
After another two or three flying attempts and jumping from branch to branch, the pair make it back to the nest. Their parents are cool with it. They know it’s going to take time for their sons to refine their flying skills and learn to hunt.
The boys will spend another four to 12 weeks around the nest, carefully watching to learn how to hunt. It’s going to take a lot of practice before they can catch their own food, so once in a while Dad or Mom will bring something home.
After approximately 120 days, Eddie and Martin will be full grown eagles and as big as their dad. Because they’re males, they’ll each weigh about 10 lbs. and have a six-foot wingspan. If they were female, they’d be closer to 14 lbs. and have an eight-foot wingspan.
It’s time to leave.
It’s bad news, but after leaving the nest, roughly 50% of young eagles don’t make it through their first year.
Collisions with cars, power lines, and wind turbines are a significant threat.
Others will die of lead poisoning from eating lead ammunition in gut piles hunters leave behind. It takes very little lead to kill an eagle or other birds and their death is torturous.
Because hunting is a difficult skill to master, many will die of starvation. Those that do hunt successfully risk mercury poisoning from eating contaminated fish.
Fortunately, in this story, Eddie and Martin make it through their first year. They continue to thrive and now have a 90% chance of survival. They’ll spend four years living a nomadic life. Some days, they’ll fly hundreds of miles.
See also: Eight Hot Spots for American Eagle Day
With their brown feathers and white markings, you can easily mistake an immature bald eagle for a golden eagle. But with each passing year, Eddie and Martin will molt and grow new feathers that look more and more like those of their parents. Finally, when they’re five years old and sexually mature, Eddie and Martin will have their distinct head of white feathers.
Each brother will eventually find a mate. They’ll swoop, perform cartwheels, and exchange sticks in mid-air. And they’ll engage in the ultimate thrill of a death spiral.
Then, like their Mom and Dad did, Eddie and Martin will each build a nest and raise their young. The brothers could live 30 years and raise families every year every year. And each time their fledglings leave, the nest will be empty… waiting for the next year and, heaven willing, another generation of majestic bald eagles.