A Bird’s Tale

Watching Big Birds Battle on Mother’s Day

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 10:45am

On a socially distanced Mother’s Day visit to Mom Wells, two bald eagles appeared  as we sat 10 feet apart in the backyard sun. The eagles were far in the distance circling to the south, looking like little more than dark spots over the roof of the barn. In searching the sky for them, Mom discovered two more. These two were a little closer so that as they circled we could see the white head and tail even with the naked eye. One began drifting higher and higher above us—it must have been 500 feet, maybe more.

Suddenly, up out of the forest on the horizon, a large, all black bird appeared, wings flapping frantically, fighting its way upwards into the blue sky. Soon we could make out the tell-tale wedge-shaped tail of a northern raven. Up it went, beating its wings with amazing determination. It let out repeated croaking calls, as only ravens can do, and it became clear that this bird was not happy to have a bald eagle flying overhead no matter the height. Black feathers glistening in the sun, the raven rose straight toward the eagle.

By now the eagle knew it was the target of the rapidly rising raven, and it began to glide in smaller and smaller circles like a child running up a spiral staircase in a game of chase. But the eagle’s large size didn’t give it the advantage in speed or agility and the raven closed in quickly, eventually getting above the massive bird. Now the raven really began harassing the eagle, calling hoarsely and diving down, forcing the eagle to tip this way and that in an attempt to avoid the raven. The eagle gave a few complaining high-pitched stuttering cries and then began quickly descending away in the opposite direction. From high above us in that intensely blue sky, the raven gave what seemed like a few celebratory yelps and peeled off its attack to quickly descend back into the forest some distance away.

We wondered where its nest might be—in a tall pine tree or a tall tower?

Just last week back home, we had watched a tag team of crows similarly harass an eagle high over the house, the eagle giving a cry unlike anything that we had heard an eagle utter before.

Later, after our Mother’s Day visit with Mom Wells, we watched an eagle become the aggressor. An osprey was carrying a fish, perhaps an alewife it had captured at a stream where they are now returning. The eagle was just below the osprey, perhaps ten or fifteen feet, flapping its great wings as it tried to get higher than the osprey so it could intimidate it into dropping the fish. The osprey was rising higher and dodging in the hopes that the eagle would give up.

We never did find out how that story ended. They were still rising and dancing in the sky when we left.

Not than many decades ago, no one would have enjoyed scenes like this on Mother’s Day or any day, as eagles, ospreys, and ravens were too few to regularly see, let alone to see them interacting. We ended the day feeling thankful for family and for the policies that allowed eagle, raven, and osprey populations to rebound. Watching them together with family is a great activity, especially during these trying times.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).