Observing the affectionate actions and hunting practices of bald eagles on the Snake River - East Idaho News
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Observing the affectionate actions and hunting practices of bald eagles on the Snake River

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While parked by the Snake River near Roberts looking for migrating waterfowl, I noticed two American bald eagles flying toward me in a stiff south wind. The larger female was in the lead and I could hear her chatting, encouraging her smaller male partner to keep up as she landed on the top of a power pole. He landed on the cross bar, reached up towards her and she responded by giving him a “beak kiss.” He bowed to her in return.

“They are in a serious relationship,” I muttered to myself as I watched them.

The wind made their actions of affection minimal as he made several attempts to get closer to her as he battled the wind. He even made three attempts to mount her, only to be blown off as she vocally encouraged him. Finally, maybe out of frustration, she took off probably looking for a better “parking” place.

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The male bows to the female after a “beak kiss.” | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

The two eagles I watched on Tuesday were new to me. I do not know where they nest, but I have a pair that nest a couple of miles from my home, and I have been watching them with my binoculars for the last month. They have been cleaning the snow and old surface material out of their nest and adding limbs and sticks as they prepare for their fertility time during March or April. They raised two kids last year and have been nesting in the same nest for five years after a wind blew down their other nest six years ago.

Bald eagles mate for life and will split up only when one dies or when one of the pair becomes infertile and no chicks are hatched for several years. They usually establish a nest near a major river or lake where their favorite food — fish — is readily available.

They engage in acts of affection all year as they work on their relationship but as their fertility period nears, their courtship becomes intense. It includes elaborate aerial displays, such locking talons and cartwheeling toward the ground. They release each other just above disaster. They will also play catch with a stick or some other object. Beak kissing, bowing to each other, snuggling together and “holding feet” while perched are all part of their affectionate interaction.

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The mating pair of bald eagles vocalize together as part of their display of affection. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

They are opportunistic feeders with their preferrable food being fish. In the last week, most of the area rivers — the Henrys Fork of the Snake River, the South and North Fork of the Teton River — became ice-free. This allowed these royal birds to leave road-killed animals for a better chance of a fish dinner. One of their favorite pastimes is allowing ospreys to capture fish and then chase it until the catch is dropped. Often, an eagle will fly upside down under an osprey to take the fish from its talons. That is one reason why Ben Franklin did not like the bald eagles becoming the national bird; Franklin considered them thieves.

While the Native American cultures honored the Bald eagle part of their religious, spiritual and fertility customs, the white settlers killed a lot of them because of their reputation for killing domestic animals. In the 1800s, they were blamed for taking chickens, lambs and even calves from farmers. But the demise of the national bird in the mid 1900s came from the use of pesticides.

DDT use on crops to control rodents caused the eggshells to be thin when the eagles consumed the rodents killed by the chemical. The thinning of the shells caused the destruction of the eggs during normal incubation. In 1963, the population of bald eagles had dropped to an estimated 500 pairs in the nation. Since then, the estimated population has grown to about 150,000 adult birds.

If you have a nesting pair near you, watch them closely. Bald eagles are not the only magical wildlife you may love to watch. It is a great time be in the great outdoors as the snow melts. Enjoy it, but be safe.

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The strong wind blows the male off course in the first attempt to copulate with the female. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

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The female vocally encourages the male in the failed third attempt to mount her. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

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