Last night Julia sent me a link to a video of a Golden Eagle swooping down into a Montreal park, picking up an infant/toddler and lifting it several feet into the air before dropping it and flying off.  Since then many on the Intertubes have declared the video to be a fake while others insist it could be real, but unfortunately many of the reasons given for it being a fake or for being real are misconceptions or inaccuracies.  I’m sure the event depicted in the video is faked … no eagle picked up a child as depicted … but the reasons for it being a fake are not as many have suggested.  One of the main reasons that this is interesting is because we saw perfectly intelligent people who clearly identify as “skeptics” writing off the video as fake mainly on the grounds that others said it was fake, or where those reasons were inaccurate. In other words, this may be an example of hyper-skepticism.  The apparent fact that the video really is a fake does not ameliorate the terrible harm that has been done to Truth and Humanity from falsely labeling the fake video as fake for false, fake reasons!

Here is the video:

Some people who have discussed this video may have seen only a shorter version showing the last bit.

Here are some of the arguments given pro and con on this video’s realness, and my assessment of them.

1) It is real because Golden Eagles occasionally eat children.   Maybe. There is no particular reason that a Golden Eagle would not eat a child, though I know of no confirmed reports of this. This particular question … could or would a Golden Eagle do this … is part of a larger theme of belief in non-human animals eating humans. People are mostly divided on this issue. Lions, it is said, don’t eat humans because they don’t like the taste. However, they do now and then. Lions and other cats tend to specialize on their prey, so day to day, healthy pride lions eat one or two species of antelope (or something) as do leopards and other cats. Switching to humans is not uncommon for large predators, but once they do they are killed. So, you don’t have very many long-career human-eating large predators. The idea that a predator won’t eat a human because of some mystical exceptional property of humans (including taste) is wishful thinking. But, predators who do so immediately face serious odds against them because humans are a bad-ass species. There is no a priori reason to say that a Golden Eagle would not or could not attack and/or eat a human infant and/or toddler. It is, however, unlikely. But, unlikely events happen. Conclusion: This point does not tell us if the video is fake.

2) It is real because Golden Eagles can and do eat large prey. This is absolutely true. Golden Eagles are the (mostly) Temperate version of the large Monkey-Easting and other eagles found in many areas across the world, and they tend to specialize on largish prey. The better known (to the average Westerner) “Bald Eagle” and its sister species in Eurasia are in that size range, much more numerous, but specialize in fish, but even they occasionally take a fawn or other large non-fish (and often, they take birds). Conclusion: Plausible.

3) It is not true because Gold Eagles are rare in Montreal. True, they are in fact rare everywhere as most large territorial predators are (with some exceptions) and Golden Eagles are especially rare and “shy” of human settlements. They do live in the general area, though, and they seem to migrate from Canada to points south, so a Golden Eagle passing through is not at all impossible. Conclusion: Plausable.

4) It is not true because it is an Osprey not a Golden Eagle. I believe that this was said by a bird expert who may have seen only the shorter version of the clip. On watching the clip, I believe it is an Eagle because it looks like one. It could be an “immature” (year old, full grown) Bald Eagle, but the markings on the wing actually look like a Golden Eagle. However, telling an immature Bald from a Golden is tricky and actually requires more of a look than we get in this video. Conclusion: Nothing is disproven here.

5) It is not real because an Eagle of this size can’t lift something as heavy as an infant or toddler that high in the air. This is my personal favorite for why the video is faked, and as far as I know I’m the only person to have noted this (on various facebook posts) so far. People have argued against this saying “Eagles take large prey” and “There’s this video of them taking a wolf” and “There’s this video of them lifting mountain goats” but all that is wrong. There is one “real” video shown on Animal Planet shot from above of a gold eagle grasping a mountain goat kid that it has dragged off a cliff and “guiding” its body down as it falls, seemingly dragging it across a ravine to a cliff face. But at no point does the Eagle lift the kid. In other videos of a Golden Eagle attacking (under human command) wolves or in other cases hunting Geese does a Golden Eagle lift anything off the ground.

Bald Eagles, which are about the same size, or a bit smaller depending on which population we are looking at, lift fish they’ve caught out of the water and fly off with them, but it is a struggle. If a Bald Eagle grabs a fish that is too big, the bird will fly just above the water dragging the fish on the surface. In some cases, the Bald Eagle virtually swims atop the water with the entaloned fish under or just on top of the water, to the nearest shore, where it drags it (with difficulty) to the land, kills it, rests for a while, then eats it. (Then spends considerable time drying off!) The fish that are too large for the Eagle to lift out of the water are significantly lighter than a human infant. Conclusion: The part where the eagle lifts the child up into the air is fake. This still leaves the possibility that an Eagle or Eagle like raptor swooped down on a child, but there was no lifting.

6) It is not real because this is not how Golden Eagles hunt their prey, for a couple of different reasons (this is an extention of #5). The large eagles such as the Golden Eagle and the various monkey eating eagles do knock large prey (like monkeys) off of branches or cliffs, pounce on them, rip them up and eat them on the spot. But they only carry off bits and pieces if they carry anything off at all. I’ve seen this in the Congo: You find a monkey killed by an Eagle, but abandoned (because humans came along). You convince the Pygmies to leave the monkey there and come back later in the day and a limb is missing. You come back still later in the day and only half the body is there. You come back even later and it is all gone. Conclusion: Not relevant, but instructive, and there is always room for a Pygmy story.

7) It is fake because the carrying-off of prey behavior is done during nesting and this eagle was not nesting. Eagles carry food to their nests only when they are feeding young that are there. There are no nesting Golden Eagles near any parks in or near Montreal, and this is not really nesting season. When the Canadians are wearing warm clothes, the only “nested” eagles are large enough to fly to the food mom or dad have killed on the ground. The Golden Eagle would have killed the infant/toddler on the spot and eaten it there… But that would not have happened because an Eagle would not try to kill and eat a small human while the other, large humans are standing around ready to stomp the Eagle. Conclusion, the Eagle in question was an idiot.

It is possible, as I suggested above, that a large raptor did swoop down and strike a kid. That is not entirely impossible. Had that happened, a lot less of the video would have to be faked! But the bit of the video where the eagle lifts the child into the air did not happen. That is faked.

UPDATE: 8) It is fake because someone admitted to having faked it. Conclusion: Assuming they are not faking having faked it, this would indicate it was faked.
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This is being discussed on my facebook page, Don Prothero’s facebook page, here, here, and here.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike
    http://10000birds.com
    December 19, 2012

    I love your take on this video, Greg. Very rational and instructive. The Pygmy story helps too!

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 19, 2012

    Mike, what kind of bird do you think the raptor is?

  3. #3 Robert
    United States
    December 19, 2012

    Again a spectacular skeptical fail by news outlets and most commenters. The toddler was at least a year old, so about 25 pounds. That’s beyond what an eagle can lift up.
    One strong argument was missing: Its fake because its a copy-cat viral attempt from the ‘flying-Dutchman’ human powered flying hoax. That was in April of this year, and the same trickery is used (unsharp, motion, person blocking the view, park-like setting). Again its done by some graphics students just fooling around a little. See: http://tinyurl.com/bpbfrgq

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    December 19, 2012

    It was also a fake for several other reasons not mentioned (but also not definitive):

    1) It is also like a previous golden eagle fake form Italy.

    2) The person holding the video did a Blaire Witch Shot which would never have happened in real life.

    3) When the vidiographer arrived at the scene, he said “Come and tie my shoe?”

    4) Had this been an actual attempted abduction by an eagle in Canada, he would have said “Eh, did ya see that bird there, did ya? Hey, let’s get a brewskie, eh hoser?”

  5. #5 Roy
    December 19, 2012

    This is clearly a surviving remnant of Haast’s Eagle (long believed extinct). It has been well documented that many Canadians in their winter coats can readily be mistaken from the air for smaller species of Moa. The larger question is why has this particular Haast’s Eagle departed its usual New Zealand environs, to which I can only speculate on that the region has recently undergone a large influx of hobbits, which likely have displaced them from that habitat.

  6. #6 Doug Alder
    December 19, 2012

    The “Eagle’s” shadows are all wrong for a single source of light (the sun)

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    December 20, 2012

    The sun is animated!

  8. #8 digweed
    Earth
    December 20, 2012

    It’s weird how everyone started debating whether or not a golden eagle would, or could do this when all you have to do is watch the slow mo bit to SEE it is clearly fake. Look at the shadows. Look at the way the child hangs in it’s claws. Look at the way it hits the ground when dropped. Look at the way the camera is carefully pointed at the ground when running rather than swinging all over the place. Look at the way the child isn’t really crying and how they pan away so all you just hear it. Not to mention the fact that the camera just happens to be following the eagle already. I mean it’s a great bit of film but come on people!!

  9. #9 Lou Jost
    December 20, 2012

    Regarding eagles carrying or not carrying whole monkeys, in the New World tropics big eagles do regularly carry large monkeys like Howlers and Wooly Monkeys. A friend of mine saw a Harpy carrying an adult still-living Howler over a lagoon in Manu NP, Peru. And my forest workers here in Ecuador have seen our Black-and-chestnut Eagles carrying whole monkeys through the air as well. Of course, even our largest neotropical monkeys are smaller than the biggest African monkeys.

  10. #10 Paul Turnbull
    Canada
    December 21, 2012

    See and I thought it was fake because within hours of it’s release the people who faked it said they did. It was an animation school project.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2012/12/19/montreal-golden-eagle-viral-video.html

  11. #11 Chris M.
    December 21, 2012

    Paul: Welcome to the ongoing discussion. Did you notice that this post was made before it being a fake was announced? Did you notice that the announcement of it being a fake was made in an obscure location we are lucky even now to have heard of? Did you notice that even after the announcement people are still arguing over what kind of bird the fake bird was? Did you notice that the announcement in unclear and vague about what they really did?

    Most importantly, did you read this blog post to the end, to where you would have read the update to the announcement of the video being a fake?

    You should beg Laden to erase your comment because right now it makes you look like a moron. Have a nice day.

  12. #12 Paul Turnbull
    December 21, 2012

    Thank you Chris for your intelligent and polite response.

    I’ll plead cold medication for missing the last line. As for the posting time it’s difficult to tell what time of day Greg made his post as there is no timestamp just a date, however the CBC post was at 10AM in the morning so it’s not unreasonable to think he posted it later. I also understand that while Canada may be obscure to you it may make sense for people checking on a story to check the place the story originated from. The school in question was not particularly vague in their response, the school is named, the animators are named and detailed. The administration of the school has not denied anything so Occam suggests that the story is true.

    Finally, I took Greg’s post as a slightly humorous take on people’s perception of the story and made an, albeit weak, attempt to join in. I have no interest in having the post removed as I have no interest whitewashing myself.

  13. #13 Dan Dan
    North America
    December 21, 2012

    My sister is so smart. Right away, she knew the video was a fake. People will do anything for money.

  14. #14 Anneke (Mudhooks)
    January 3, 2013

    Ahem… and let’s not forget that Ospreys eat fish exclusively. They have no need to carry off a small child which would be very difficult for an Osprey to eat compared to a fish. And they don’t generally, nor do they need to, hang about in city parks away from water or their nesting sites. If they have young, they are busy feeding them… with fish.

    And, by the time the video made its appearance, Ospreys have done with their nesting and have begun migrating.

  15. #15 Dan
    USA
    February 6, 2013

    For those who believe Golden Eagles can’t lift something the size of a child all you need to do is watch footage (on YouTube or other video sites) regarding eagles hunting wolves, mountain goats etc.

  16. #16 Alan
    July 1, 2013

    “The idea that a predator won’t eat a human because of some mystical exceptional property of humans (including taste) is wishful thinking.”

    There is some truth to this bit of “mysticism”, mammalian predators don’t normally eat other mammalian predators, they do however attempt to kill off the competition. eg: Lions and Hyenas kill but rarely eat other, humans kill but rarely eat mammalian predators such as big cats, wolves, bears, fox, etc. Bears that eat people usually do so just before hibernation and are usually old and malnourished.
    One notable exception is the polar bear, even healthy adults will stalk a lone human,

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    July 1, 2013

    Alan, good point, but you have to re-ask that question with proper reference to phylogeny and to the reasons something like this might be true. Carnivora (the order of mammals) may rarely eat each other, or more exactly, rarely kill each other for food for a number of reasons. One, it is dangerous, two , most mammal carnivores specialize to some degree, quite often to a great degree, three, there is a general danger of pathogens eating fellow carnivores, and four, there is a specific danger of eating things that are high on the food chain. Having said that, most of the people in Uganda (the only study I know of) that are killed by a non human animal are a) killed by a lion and b) eaten by the lion.

    Humans are not Carnivora. They are primates. Large predacious birds and mammalian carnivores eat primates all the time.

  18. #18 Pam Haessler
    Canada
    July 24, 2013

    For ways a golden eagle can get a mountain goat off a cliff, see this video shot in Spain by a documentary film maker…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XafAdkZIYKA The whole snatched a toddler thing is horrific to imagine, shades of Hitchcock’s The Birds, but not plausible. That being said when my cat goes up on the roof and he’s 10 plus pounds, I keep an eye out for eagles, they love cats.

  19. #19 Sylvester B
    January 3, 2014

    Anyone wonder why flying low over the water was helpful in carrying the heavy fish? It is a phenomenon called “ground effect”, which applies to airplanes as well as birds. Even model airplanes, as I can attest. I once had an engine that went sour shortly after starting a takeoff run…it had enough power to traverse the runway but not enough to rise above the trees at the end!