Category Archives: Eagles

Legends of fearsome birds grounded in distant reality

Illustration by Auntspray/Adobe Stock A lone gastornis walks by the edge of a river in this artist’s illustration of a member of an extinct avian family known as “Terror Birds.” These large flightless birds arose as apex predators in much of their domain.

Giant eagles, terror birds, and rocs! Oh my! While begging the pardon of the clever writers of 1939’s film “The Wizard of Oz,” I thought I’d focus on some of the more terrifying birds to ever roam the planet as we move closer to Halloween later this month.

Photo by Couleur/Pixabay.com • A white-tailed eagle is one of the world’s larger eagles, but even this large raptor would have been dwarfed by the now-extinct Haast’s eagle that once hunted giant moas in New Zealand.

Giant Eagles

In the not-so-distant past, an eagle in New Zealand achieved status as an apex feathered predator that specialized in preying on some of the largest birds to ever live.

Known as Haast’s eagle, this now-extinct raptor had a body size about 40 percent larger than even the largest of today’s eagles. Females probably reached a weight of 22 to 33 pounds. Males, as is the case with most living eagles today, were smaller than females but still probably weighed between 20 to 26 pounds. This gigantic eagle, however, possessed a relatively short wingspan of roughly 8 to 10 feet wide, which compares to that recorded for large specimens of golden eagle and Steller’s sea eagle.

This huge raptor was a major predator on the population of New Zealand moas, a large flightless and wingless bird somewhat reminiscent of modern ostriches. In direct comparison with the moas, these New Zealand eagles were almost puny. Some moas reached a height of 12 feet tall and a weight of more than 500 pounds. Despite their superior size and weight, however, moas simply lacked any defense against the huge razor-like talons and sharp beak of the Haast’s Eagle. An attack by such a well-equipped bird of prey must have been devastating to their prey. If Haast’s eagle was anything like many modern predators, it probably chose to hunt young, infirm or elderly moas rather than an adult moa in prime health.

Back in 2009, Associated Press writer Michael Casey speculated in an article on Haast’s eagle that this bird of prey might have included humans on the menu. Casey wrote that in recent years the scientific opinion on Haast’s eagle has evolved. Once thought to be a mere scavenger like vultures, most experts now think Haast’s eagle was a capable and efficient predator.

There is no direct evidence that the eagle, which went extinct about 500 years ago, ever dined on humans. Casey does mention the legend of the pouakai, which was a giant bird with a reputation for launching sudden attacks on people and fully capable of killing a small child.

If the Haast’s eagle did snatch a few unfortunate children, the Maori who colonized New Zealand about 750 years soon returned the favor. Both the moa and Haast’s eagle disappeared from New Zealand soon after humans arrived on the remote island.

Artist Charles Knight, famous for now outdated depictions of dinosaurs, illustrated his version of a “terror bird” back in 1901.

Terror Birds

Terror birds were prehistoric forebears to Haast’s eagle. More accurately known as Phorusrhacids, the “terror birds” were an extinct clade of large carnivorous flightless birds that were the largest species of apex predators in South America during the period of prehistory known as “The Age of Mammals.”

Unlike Haast’s eagle, which was fully capable of flight, the terror birds were flightless like the extinct moas and our modern ostriches, emus and cassowaries. The tallest of the terror birds stood 10 feet tall, but some members of the family were considerably smaller, reaching a height between two and three feet.

The larger species included birds such as Titanis walleri, Phorusrhacos ameghino and Kelenken guillermoi. With a skull more than 28 inches long, Kelenken possessed the largest head of any known bird. Some members of the diverse terror bird family even ranged into what is now the southern United States. Fossils of some of these ancient birds have been found in Florida and Texas. As the saying goes, everything’s bigger in Texas.

Mammals of various sizes provided a smorgasbord for the terror birds, which were more than capable of running down prey and dispatching it with a heavy, hooked beak. While it would be fascinating to still have terror birds roaming the globe, I have to admit that I prefer that the birds content themselves with sunflower seeds and suet cakes rather than considering whether I might make a nice addition to the menu.

This color illustration by Charles Maurice Detmold depicts the legendary roc and its elephant prey.

Legend of the Roc

While descriptions of the mythical roc make this bird sound like a truly horrifying feathered terror, the actual creature behind the origins of this incredible beast was actually a placid herbivore.

The roc arose in the fabulous fables of the Middle East. The famous compilation of stories known as One Thousand and One Nights features accounts of the monstrous roc, a bird deemed capable of seizing and carrying off prey as large as a fully grown elephant.

In reality, discoveries of the eggs of a bird now known to science as the extinct Vorombe titan likely inspired the myth of the roc. Vorombe titan stood almost 10 feet tall and weighed 1,600 pounds. The largest living bird today is the common ostrich. Males ostriches can reach a height of 9 feet and weigh 250 pounds, which means Vorombe titan would have dwarfed modern ostriches.

Native to the island of Madagascar, Vorombe titan and its relatives went extinct about a thousand years ago. Explorers from Middle Eastern countries returned from the island of Madagascar with egg shells that provided strong evidence of a giant bird and led to the legend of the roc, or elephant bird. The eggs of this bird were indeed impressive. The eggs were 13 inches long and 3 feet, 3 inches in circumference. About 160 chicken eggs could have fit inside a Vorombe titan’s egg.

The family of birds known as kiwis are considered the closest living relatives of the giant moas.

Once thought to be related to ratites, which includes modern ostriches, emus and cassowaries, Vorombe titan’s closest living relatives are probably the kiwis, a family of flightless birds that still exists in New Zealand. Like the kiwi, Vorombe titan, or the legendary roc, was a gentle, near-sighted herbivore.

While the imaginative mind can spin interesting scenarios with these gone-but-not-forgotten monsters, I think I’ll confine my birding to warblers, hummingbirds and other backyard birds.

 

Birds made news headlines in 2019

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • California condors have gradually returned to parts of their range beyond California. A family of condors now resides in Zion National Park, marking a return of these birds to Utah.

 

Birds made headlines in 2019. Some species, having been presumed extinct, were rediscovered — some in the mostly unlikely of places. One of the major bird-related stories of the year involved a stark warning about a sharp decline in overall bird numbers. Below, in no particular order, are some of last year’s top stories about our fine feathered friends.

69 years old and a mother again

The Laysan albatross known as Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, became parents again in 2010. Wisdom is at least 69 years old and ranks as the world’s oldest known banded wild bird. Her mate’s name, by the way, translates as “lover of wisdom.” The chick hatched in February at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial. Wisdom has raised more than 30 chicks in her lifetime. While Laysan albatrosses are not considered endangered, some of their kin are threatened with extinction.

Photo by J. Klavitter/USFWS • Wisdom, one of Midway Atoll’s oldest residents, became a mother again in 2019. The female Laysan albatross is approaching her 70th birthday.

While walking to church

The year started with some good birding news when a bird thought extinct was rediscovered in a suburb of Medellín, Colombia, on Jan. 7, 2019. Rodolfo Correa Peña was headed to a church service when he spotted an odd bird in a garden. The bird turned out to be an Antioquia brushfinch, a bird known previously only from museum specimens. Peña, an engineering student with an interest in birding, knew the local brushfinches and recognized that the bird was different. He secured photos of the bird and stunned the scientific community with the rediscovery of a bird presumed extinct.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Endangered California condors receives some good news in 2019..

Condors soaring high

California condors continue to delight with their success stories, even extending their range beyond California. Estimates indicate that 300 condors exist in the wild with about 200 more birds in captivity for use with breeding programs. Evidence that the work to preserve the species is working was provided this year in Utah’s Zion National Park, which became home to a condor named “1K” because it is the 1,000th chick hatched as part of an extensive condor restoration program. The chick hatched in May and took a rather clumsy first flight in September. The chick represents the first condor born within Zion National Park in more than a century. In 1987, when the condor population totaled only 27 known condors, wildlife officials captured the surviving wild birds and made them part of an existing captive breeding program. In 1992, the condor recovery program started to release the birds back into the wild. There are now more condors flying free in the wild than are maintained in captivity.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A large flock of Great Egrets flies over the Watauga River in Elizabethton. There is mounting evidence that many bird populations are on the decline.

Fewer birds?

Bird enthusiasts were shaken by the publication in September of an article warning that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. The analysis, published in the journal “Science,” is an extensive attempt to determine what is happening to avian populations. The results shocked — there are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

Hope

Yet, in words penned by poet Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Birds are among the most resilient lifeforms on the planet. If humans can get out of the way and quit making life more difficult for the feathered inhabitants of the planet, birds are more than capable of rebounding. The federal government needs to maintain safeguards and regulations that are in place to protect birds while ordinary people must alter their ways by shunning pesticides, preserving a variety of habitats and simply giving more regard to the fellow creatures they share the Earth with. If we can do these things, the birds will be fine. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the examples of Wisdom the Laysan albatross and a California condor known as “1K.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Canada geese forage in a field in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

Majesty of bald eagle suitable for America’s official bird

american bald eagle

Photo by David Dibert on Pexels.com A bald eagle comes in for a landing.

Here’s an early “Happy Fourth of July” to all my American readers. I thought this week’s post should focus some attention on our national bird, the American bald eagle, which officially became the national emblem in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted.

Despite elevating this native bird to such lofty status, we have not always been kind to the bald eagle. We allowed habitat destruction and toxic pesticides to bring this eagle to the brink of extinction. With some protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded. In fact, the Department of Interior took the eagle off the endangered species list on June 28, 2007.

bald eagle over the body of water

Photo by Wayne Christensen on Pexels.com A bald eagle scoops a fish from the water with its talons.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the area lakes in the region are good places to look for Bald Eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even host nesting bald eagles. For instance, this eagle has been documented nesting at Holston Lake in recent years.

I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. My most unusual observation of a wild bald eagle took place on Labor Day many years ago when an adult eagle flew over my grandparents’ home in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County. North America’s other eagle, the golden eagle, is a very rare visitor to northeast Tennessee. The golden eagle is primarily a bird of the western United States while the bald eagle ranges widely across the United States as well as into Canada and Mexico.
The eagles are incredibly majestic birds and important symbols of the value of natural places and creatures.

close up photography of white black eagle during daytime

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com The bald eagle had rebounded in population.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a member of a genus known as Haliaeetus, or sea eagles. There are seven other living species in the genus: the white-bellied sea eagle, Sanford’s sea eagle, African fish eagle, Madagascar fish eagle, Pallas’s fish eagle, white-tailed eagle and Steller’s sea eagle.

The bald eagle, however, is not considered closely related to eagles in the genus Aquila, or “true eagles,” in which the golden eagle is included.

close up photography of bald eagle

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com The bald eagle’s place as the nation’s symbol seems very well secured.

Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck and tail; and yellow feet and bill. Juvenile bald eagles are a mixture of brown and white and reach full maturity in four to five years.

The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches in length, slightly larger than the male, with a wingspan that ranges from 72 to 90 inches. Bald eagles weigh from 10 to 14 pounds.

bald eagle bird clouds country

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com Bald eagles are often associated with wetland habitats.

 

Despite these impressive characteristics, the bald eagle is dwarfed in comparison to one of its now-extinct relatives. The largest eagle ever to evolve was Haast’s eagle, which once thrived in New Zealand. This eagle was named for the German geologist Julius von Haast, who founded Canterbury Museum at Christchurch in New Zealand. Haast, who died in 1887, was one of the first scientists to study large flightless birds such as the moa family that once roamed New Zealand.

Julius_von_Haast 2

Julius von Haast

In fact, Haast’s eagle was considered a major predator on the population of New Zealand moas, some of which reached a height of 12 feet tall and a weight of more than 500 pounds. By contrast, female Haast eagles probably reached a weight of 22 to 33 pounds. Males, as is the case with most living eagles, are smaller than females and probably weighed between 20 to 26 pounds. This mega-sized eagle possessed a relatively short wingspan of roughly 8 to 10 feet wide. This wingspan compares to that recorded for large specimens of golden eagle and Steller’s sea eagle. Even the largest of today’s eagles, however, are about 40 percent smaller in body size than the size of Haast’s eagles. Despite their superior size, moas simply lacked any defense against the huge razor-like talons and sharp bill of the Haast’s Eagle.

Here are a few other eagle facts:

— Eagle bones are light because they are hollow. The beak, talons and feathers are made of keratin.
— The Madagascar fish eagle is the most rare eagle on earth, and one of the most rare birds. The current population is estimated at less than 400 individual birds, with perhaps around 120 breeding pairs.
— Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
— Wild bald eagles are long-lived birds and may live as long as 30 years. In captivity, however, the oldest documented Bald Eagle lived to be 47 years old.
— Bald eagles can lift as much as four pounds. They feed mainly on fish, but they will take advantage of carrion and scavenge for their meals. They will occasionally also take waterfowl as prey.
— The hunting area of bald eagles varies from 1,700 to 10,000 acres. Home ranges are smaller where food is present in great quantity.
— Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 miles per hour.
— All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
— Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies. Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs. The 35 days of incubation duties are shared by both male and female.
— Today, there are about 10,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles.

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I look forward to hearing from readers. Those who wish to ask a question, share an observation or make a comment may reach me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

bald eagle in macro photography

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com Happy Fourth of July!