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.
This is being discussed on my facebook page, Don Prothero’s facebook page, here, here, and here.