Young eagle sits, suns before it soars

Young eagle sits, suns before it soars

If you see a bird sitting on a branch it doesn’t necessarily mean that branch means something special to the bird. A bird probably alights on thousands of different branches through the course of its life. But see a bird on the same branch at the same time of day, five days in a row and you know there’s got to be something extraordinary about that spot.

In recent travels up and down the Holmes County Trail I’ve spotted the same young bald eagle perched on one particular branch of a years-dead Ash tree every morning for a week. I had seen him there intermittently on other days. (I’m assigning gender to “him” only for the sake of my own convenience. It’s extremely difficult to tag a gender to a young bald eagle, and nearly as difficult once they become adults.)

The first time I rode up on the bird I wasn’t quite sure what he was. For all the splendor of the adult bald eagle — the crisp white head and matching tail, the dark brown body and wings and the striking accent of bright yellow for the beak and feet — the young bald eagle is a bit of a mess.

Lacking all the contrast and vibrancy of its parents, the youngster slouches in mottled brown, its dark head appearing not quite large enough for its body. The head thing might be an illusion, however, as the truth is that its wings and tail feathers are actually a bit oversized — an adaptation akin to training wheels on a bicycle. The added flight surface gives the bird a bit more lift and makes its glide more stable as it gains experience, and gaining experience was one of the reasons this young fellow had settled upon that spot.

Low enough to awkwardly flap up to, yet tall enough to afford a sweeping view of his nearby world, the dead ash was the perfect height. With no foliage to entangle his gangly flight gear or obstruct his view, the leafless tree was a great vantage point from which to keep watch over the flat fields and flooded ditches for mice, muskrats and young groundhogs.

The young bird will learn soon enough, however, that sitting out in the wide open as a large bird of prey also has a disadvantage. While the eagle has no natural enemies from his seat at the top of the food chain, he does have an entire league of detractors in the form of lesser birds who don’t particularly care for birds that eat other birds. Crows are avowed enemies of all large raptors based largely on their hatred and distrust of owls. The latter have long snatched the former from night roosts and nests as matter of course. The crows have for eons sought revenge during the light of day by indiscriminately mobbing roosting raptors (and I’m talking dozens of crows versus a single owl or eagle) to literally “pester the daylights out of them.” Once an eagle grows into its easily recognizable, full-adult plumage, the crow pressure dissipates, but I’d imagine that many a young eagle has paid the price for mistaken identity.

Back to my every-day eagle and his special spot. There’s one feature of this perch that is unique to the time of day and even the time of year and that’s sunlight — the real key to why I’ve caught the same bird there day after day.

I’d watched his parents perch for years during the springtime on a certain branch along the Killbuck Creek on frosty mornings in the late winter, soaking up the morning sun, seemingly getting ready for their day. My young bird had found that the first bright rays of the morning paint this particular branch with a strong dose of warmth and light — nothing better to get oneself warmed up, dried off and ready to try those gangly wings out for another day.

There’s a lot to be said for the perfect sunbeam, and I’ll be writing about that a little more in next week’s column.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world please write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627 or email John at

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