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Fledged Bald Eagles

Dear Bird Folks,

Why, after a baby Bald Eagle fledges, does it never return to its nest? And if by chance, he [or she] does come back, why do the parents reject him [or her] and treat him [or her] like an intruder?

– Diane


A couple of things, Diane,

Normally, when someone sends me a question, he or she will also add the name of his or her hometown. That way readers won’t think I’m making the whole thing up. (Don’t ask me why including a location confirms authenticity, but it somehow does the trick.) Also, just because Bald Eagles are the bad boys of the bird world it doesn’t mean they are all “boys.” So, I had to include “or she” and “or her” to your question to keep things politically correct. I didn’t want to end up getting letters from…well, people who like to write letters. (They know who they are.)

About baby eagles: Saying a fledged eagle “never returns to its nest” is not totally accurate. In fact, like many birds of prey, eagles hate to leave home. Oh sure, they may take a few short flights, but like boomerangs, they usually end up back where they started. Meanwhile, most songbirds get out and stay out as soon as they possibly can. For example, when a baby chickadee finally discovers how to effectively use its wings, it leaves the nest and never returns, not even to pick up its mail. This is not the case with baby eagles. After fledging, eagles aren’t strong enough to keep up with their parents or skilled enough to hunt on their own. So, they spend the next few weeks making short flights, often using their nest as a perch, while they wait for their folks to deliver a delicious dead creature.

Learning to fly is a critical step in the life of an eagle, and it rarely goes smoothly. A high percentage of young Bald Eagles crash and burn on their first flight attempts. The embarrassed bird typically ends up on the ground, while its nest mates look down at it and snicker. Once on the ground the young bird is vulnerable to predators, but the list of potential predators is short. After all, we aren’t talking about a baby robin running across the front lawn. Young eagles are basically fully grown at this stage and are not something to be messed with. In addition, the parents will continue to feed and protect their grounded eaglet (and probably snicker a little, too).

For most migrating birds their winter destination is not a choice, but is actually “hardwired” into them. As we speak, young Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are pushing their way toward Central America. They travel alone and don’t follow their parents or other hummers; they are driven by pure instinct. Such is not the case with young Bald Eagles. Once they leave the care of their parents and head out on their own, they have no ultimate destination in mind. Like avian versions of Jack Kerouac, young eagles are nomads for the first five years of their lives. An eaglet may go south or it may head west, always in search of good hunting, tolerable weather…and a town where no one snickers at it for falling out of the nest.

Bald Eagles don’t obtain their signature “bald” heads and white tails until they are four or five years old. Until then, they are simply giant brown birds. Occasionally, a customer will come running in to tell me that he or she (see what I did there, Diane?) has just seen a “Golden Eagle.” While it is true that Golden Eagles are also big, brown birds, ninety-nine percent of the brown eagles seen around here are young Bald Eagles. Sometimes people are disappointed when I explain that they didn’t see a Golden Eagle, but come on…seeing our national bird in any plumage is cool, darn cool.

After traveling the continent for five years and finally obtaining its adult colors, the eagle will be ready to have a family of its own. Typically, it will return to the general area where it was born, but not the exact location. Why not the exact location? Its parents (if still alive) will drive it away, that’s why. Unlike some humans, who (for some reason) enjoy having their adult children living nearby, eagles treat all other eagles, even their own offspring, as competition and don’t want anything to do with them. Thomas Wolfe may have written “you can’t go home again,” but Wolfe likely stole that line from a young eagle…or not.

As for our local Bald Eagle population: Right now all we have are the occasional “visitors.” The last eagle nest on Cape Cod was in the vicinity of Snake Pond in Sandwich. That location hasn’t been used since 1905. (I don’t blame the eagles. I wouldn’t live near a place called “Snake Pond” either.) However, nesting eagles are moving closer. Fall River, Lakeville and Plymouth all have active nests. Will eagles breed again on the Cape? Maybe, but unfortunately the Cape doesn’t have many big trees. Unlike Ospreys, which readily come to poles and platforms, Bald Eagles prefer to build in trees that are over 120-feet-tall. Thus, if we want to encourage eagles, all we have to do is plant lots of 120-foot-tall trees. That’s all.

A fledged Bald Eagle does return to its nest, Diane, but only until it develops the hunting skills and wing strength needed to head out on its own. Eventually, it will return as an adult and if it happens to stumble into its parents’ territory, it will, as you said, be treated as an intruder. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe an ostracized bird will head our way and build the Cape’s first eagle’s nest in over 100 years. Let’s just hope the nest isn’t near Snake Pond because if it is, I’m not looking for it.