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BIG BIRDS MALIGNED BY TALL TALES FEARS ARE EXCESSIVE

Several years ago, I was asked to develop a self-guiding nature trail in woods adjoining the new Audubon community off Millersport Highway.

I had been delighted to find such highlights as flowering dogwood, trillium, Christmas fern and hepatica. I shall always remember my most thrilling discovery -- a great horned owl on her nest at the end of the trail. There, at the edge of the woods, that owl could watch all the activity in the subdivision across a small pond.

Last week, I received a call from one of those residents, James Stamos. He told me that he had just acquired a small puppy, a West Highland terrier. On his first outing with his new pet, a huge owl made its appearance. He had never seen an owl before and actually wondered whether this one might be big enough to grab the puppy and fly away with it.

Naturally, I was happy to learn that the owl was still around. Even with its 5-foot wingspan, such owls have a limit in their ability to lift, though they might take a squirrel for an evening meal. It should be not be a threat to a dog.

When Frank Trevor joined the faculty at Millbrook School, this young biology teacher showed the students where sharp talons of a great horned owl had lifted the tendons in his left wrist -- an accident that resulted in complete loss of his thumb in that hand. That experience convinced me that large owls can be dangerous at close range, even if we enjoy watching them at a distance.

Our discussions often led to Frank's adventure with a golden eagle he had trained at Cornell University. That eagle served as the mascot of the Seal and Serpent Fraternity. Because it was so very tame, the eagle was always free to fly about the campus until one day the dean saw it sunbathing up on the roof of the science building. There, with its 8-foot wingspan, the eagle seemed to be watching the dean's cocker spaniel as it ran after the squirrels among the trees.

No matter how Frank tried to convince the dean that golden eagles are definitely not able to carry more than eight pounds, that worried gentleman had visions of it swooping down and taking his dog to the roof. He immediately issued orders that Trevor's mascot henceforth should remain tethered at all times.

Of course, there have been many fanciful tales about human infants getting carried off to an eagle's aerie -- totally impossible. Knowing such facts, my friend, Dr. Walter Spofford of the Falconry Club of North America, was commissioned to investigate reports of sheep ranchers losing their spring lambs to eagles in many parts of the Southwest. As long as those wild rumors circulated, golden eagles were frequently getting shot from the sky. One rancher in New Mexico even hired bounty hunters to go after those "culprits" with machine guns fired from an airplane. The toll was absolutely devastating to the eagle population.

This situation was so deplorable that "Doc" Spofford was dispatched far back into the interior to examine false evidence of an eagle kill. In every instance it was found that a dead lamb had been actually stillborn. It had been abandoned close to a shallow scoop in the sandy soil where the ewe had recently laid down to give birth. Normally, she would have remained to nurse a healthy lamb and guard it from danger -- clearly, an even match for any eagle if it dared to come too near.

In his final analysis, "Doc" Spofford reported that eagles never carried the lambs aloft, and apparently ate only the carcasses of lambs which had been born dead. In fact, his investigations proved that much of the rangeland was overcrowded and getting overgrazed by sheep.

Such conditions had a serious, weakening effect upon all the half-starved ewes about to bear lambs. Golden eagles themselves were shown to lack the strength to carry even the smallest lamb.

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