By Jeff Butts
July is a big transitional month for our local bald eagles, as the breeding pairs with eaglets must coax their young to leave the nest. Yes, even eagles sometimes have trouble getting their young to leave home. The parents have their little tricks.
Instead of bringing the food back to the nest like they have for the last 12 weeks, they land in an adjacent tree to effectively say to their eaglets, “Are you hungry? Well, just come over here and get your food.” The now fully grown eaglets will squawk and complain, but soon realize it’s time to find the courage for that first flight.
With eagles’ nests 80 to 100 feet in the air, it’s a long way down. No matter how many times they stand in the nest and flap their wings, nothing is quite like launching themselves into the air that first time. The parents will clear the airspace around their nests about two weeks prior to their eaglets’ first flight.
Often the adults will spend most of the time chasing off last year’s fledglings. Usually tolerated to hang around, when that two-week time comes, they are chased off repeatedly until they stay away.
Some eaglets take their first flight and have no issues, but some go crashing through the branches and injure their wings. Occasionally, due to some disturbance like fireworks or a rogue puff of wind, eaglets will fall out of the nest before they are ready or able to fly. Those massive wings, 6.5 feet wide for males and 7 feet for females, have large feathers full of blood prior to being ready to fly, so if they are forced from the nest too early, they can’t fly. If grounded or injured eaglets are not rescued, they will hide in the bushes but usually will not make it.
If you see an eagle on the ground, try to stay as far away as possible. It’s normal for eaglets to stand on the ground for 20 to 30 minutes while they are finding their way in the world. If you see an eagle on the ground for over an hour, please call me, and I will come assess if the eagle is injured and in trouble, or just resting.
I tell people that they should never try and make a sitting eagle fly. When they are feeding themselves and several eaglets, the pressure to be successful is really on.
It is really a beautiful thing to see a young eagle on its first flight, with the proud parents beside them soaring the sky. After about two weeks, the adults will lead their fledgings far up north to catch the salmon runs, and won’t return until sometime in October.
Fledglings actually look bigger then the adults because their feathers are longer to help them fly easier. They often appear a little clumsy while landing in trees, but they’ll be OK.