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Two bald eagles altered their hunting tactics and seemingly worked together to outsmart sea ducks in a recent story submitted by a BDN reader, Kate Chaplin of Northeast Harbor, for the “Strange Stories in the Maine Wilderness” series. The story got me thinking. Just how intelligent are bald eagles?
When I first read Chaplin’s story, I was reminded of a suspenseful scene in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. In the scene, two velociraptors work together to hunt down children hiding in a kitchen. The way the two dinosaurs move in tandem and communicate using special vocalizations suggests an eerie intelligence that makes the scenario even more terrifying. At the same time, it lends a human-like quality to the prehistoric animals.
Chaplin’s eagle story reminded me that modern day creatures can be just as awe-inspiring as the prehistoric animals fabricated by Hollywood.
Enthusiastic about the topic, I did some digging to learn more about one of Maine’s most celebrated birds. And I learned that while bald eagles usually hunt solo, tandem hunting by bald eagles has been documented.
“It’s been documented in eagles hunting cattle egrets, waterfowl and gulls by both territorial pairs [of bald eagles] and immature bald eagles,” said Erynn Call, raptor biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “It’s a relatively rare behavior [for eagles], but it’s been found that they’re more successful during those tandem hunts than in solo hunts.”
Species of birds in Maine that are more well-known for group hunting include peregrine falcons, golden eagles and ravens, Call said. And in southwestern states, the Harris hawk hunts in packs so often that they’re known as “wolves of the sky.”
When it comes to intelligence, Call isn’t sure how bald eagles compare to other birds. Parrots, crows, ravens and jays are thought to be among the most intelligent of birds, she said. And the Egyptian vulture is one of the few birds known to use tools.
“It picks up a rounded stone in its beak and uses it to hammer ostrich eggs until they crack,” Call said. “Local ravens know about this behavior and wait around [to steal the food].”
Chris DeSorbo, director of the raptor program at Biodiversity Research Institute, stressed that bald eagles usually hunt solo. However, it’s not uncommon to see two or more eagles gathered in one area where food is abundant. Maine residents often witness this phenomena in the spring, when eagles and ospreys gather at dams to hunt for alewives that are migrating upstream.
Eagles will often tolerate each other when hunting in the same location, but fights do occur, especially if there’s not enough food to go around.
While DeSorbo has not specifically studied the intelligence or hunting behaviors of eagles, he said that he isn’t too surprised to hear Chaplin’s story. He considers eagles to be fairly intelligent birds, capable of changing hunting tactics to suit a scenario.
“We have some colleagues that do loon research out in Washington State, and they were having problems with eagles taking young [loons],” DeSorbo said. “They had some interesting observations of eagles basically hanging out under some cover along the shoreline and waiting for the opportune time to sneak attack the loons and steal their young. Clearly what they were seeing was a relatively sophisticated way of sneaking up on the loons because loons are incredibly tuned into the things around them.”
Hiding in vegetation to sneak up on prey? Sounds like a modern-day velociraptor to me.