Tetrapod Zoology

Using an eagle to catch and kill a wolf

No time for anything new (err, just a tad busy at the moment), so here’s something else from the Tet Zoo archives. This article originally appeared on ver 1 in April 2006 and appears here in slightly modified form.

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ResearchBlogging.org

In previous articles we’ve looked at the ability of large eagles – the Golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos in particular – to kill surprisingly large prey. As in adult pronghorn, adult reindeer, juvenile red deer and juvenile domestic cattle etc. (see links below, or Cooper (1969), Deblinger & Alldredge (1996) and Nybakk et al. (1999)). Such behaviour isn’t unique to Golden eagles: Bald eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus and other species can do similar things (McEneaney & Jenkins 1983). Eagles can be trained, of course, meaning that people can get them to do remarkable things that seem contrary to sensible behaviour: they can use them to hunt wolves, for example.

The Kirghiz tribesmen of central Asia have long been known to use Golden eagles to catch wolves, and in fact Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324) wrote of “a great number of eagles, all trained to catch wolves, foxes, deer and wild goats”. This would have been some time in the 1270s, when Polo was in his twenties. John Love, in his 1989 book on eagles, wrote of a Kirghizian eagle that captured 14 wolves in a day. The precise role of these wolf-hunting eagles has been some somewhat uncertain, in the literature at least.

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Some authors state that the eagle’s job is not to kill the wolf, but to hold it down until its trainer is able to arrive (on horseback) and dispatch the wolf with a knife. However, as is illustrated by the fact that Golden eagles can kill mammals bigger and heavier than wolves by a powerful strike directed at the back of the skull, a trained eagle would in fact be able to kill even an adult wolf if it approached quickly enough and struck the wolf, from behind, in the right place. Accordingly, other authors state that the eagle’s role is to kill – rather than just pin down – the wolf. Wikipedia’s entry on this subject states that “These eagles are so fast and powerful that they are capable of killing a fully grown wolf by diving at speed and striking the wolf on the back of the head or neck” [the adjacent photo shows the skin of a wolf, killed by an eagle, hanging on the outside of the house of a Kazakh hunter. Photo courtesy of S. Bodio]. Indeed, I know from film I’ve seen that the eagles certainly can and do kill the wolves during these hunts.

Some wolves prove particularly challenging quarry, however, and there is the tale of one that foiled the attempts of 11 eagles – killing each one – until it was finally dispatched thanks to the efforts of a twelfth eagle. Love (1989) intimated that wolf-hunting with eagles is all but extinct in modern times but, as you can see from this 2006 blog post by Steve Bodio (and from his 2003 book Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia), this is certainly not true. And if you’re sceptical of the existence of wolf-killing eagles (for reasons I cannot quite understand, some people are), there are a few graphic youtube videos: this is the most informative one (definitely NOT to be viewed by people with an overly sympathetic view of nature).

I said at the start that the idea of an eagle attacking a wolf might seem “contrary to sensible behaviour”. But, as people who know eagles will tell you, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t, or can’t, happen on occasion in the wild. Golden eagles can and do definitely kill coyotes and foxes, so the idea of one making a mistake, or just being bold enough, to try and take out a wolf is not far-fetched. It might not go to plan for the eagle*, but animals frequently make mistakes, and raptors are by nature remarkably bold and sure of their abilities. And remember that some Golden eagles have become confident, regular predators of large mammals: the individuals in New Mexico that took to killing domestic cattle killed at least six calves and injured 48 (yes, forty-eight) during 1987, 1988 and 1989** before they were captured and removed (Phillips et al. 1996).

* Though it might.
** And there were just the cases verified by the Animal Damage Control people. An additional six deaths and 13 injuries were reported but not verified by the ADC.

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What else might be possible? There are various anecdotes of eagles that were trained to kill horses and donkeys, and of course there are all those tales of eagles attacking people (adults as well as children). Steve Bodio told me about a case from Kazakhstan where a Golden eagle tried to take a Snow leopard, but the cat won. And there are also authenticated cases of eagles attacking planes and gliders: more on that another time (I have photos). The idea of big eagles attacking people is typically regarded as fairytale nonsense. It isn’t.

The whole ‘eagles as macropredators’ thing is covered in the extremely affordable Tetrapod Zoology Book One, but it’s also been covered in these articles…

And for more on raptors, see…

I’m going away for a little while. Watch out for those evil spammers.

Ref – -

Cooper, A. B. 1969. Golden eagle kills Red deer calf. Journal of Zoology 158, 215-216.

Deblinger, R. D. & Alldredge, W. 1996. Golden eagle predation on pronghorns in Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin. Journal of Raptor Research 30, 157-159.

Love, J. A. 1989. Eagles. Whittet Books, London.

McEneaney, T. P. & Jenkins, M. A. 1983. Bald eagle predation on domestic sheep. Wilson Bulletin 95, 694-695.

Nybakk, K., Kjelvik, O. & Kvam, T. 1999. Golden eagle predation on semidomestic reindeer. Wildlife Society Bulletin 27, 1038-1042

Phillips, R. L., Cummings, J. L., Notah, G., & Mullis, C. (1996). Golden eagle predation on domestic calves Wildlife Society Bulletin, 24, 468-470

Comments

  1. #1 Vladimir Dinets
    December 10, 2010

    “Berkut” means simply “golden eagle” in Turkic and East Slavic languages. “Burgaed” in Mongolian.
    Eagles are trained by feeding them meat pieces fixed into the eye sockets of a wolf skin which is dragged on a rope across the steppe. Their job is to seize the wolf by the face, blinding it, and hold down until the hunter rides up and kills it. Note that steppe wolves are not much larger than coyotes.

  2. #2 emi
    December 10, 2010

    Wow … really fascinating … I never heard about this, it is intriguing, in terms of behaviour, ecology, anthropology … And the video is amazing! Impressive when the wolf gets the first eagle, and the second one comes at its back! I can understand scepticism, but those images are there! I am very interested about the attach … to verify if there is a specific and repeated scheme of attack. I suppose there is, but it would be very interesting to have “statistics” on wolves’ lesions …

  3. #3 emi
    December 10, 2010

    Well, it seems that Vladimir posted part of the answer while I was posting the question! Food into the eye-sockets, wow …

  4. #4 Darren Naish
    December 10, 2010

    Thanks, Vlad – I didn’t know that about the terminology (will now go and amend article). You are right about the size of the wolves, of course.

  5. #5 Jerzy
    December 10, 2010

    Curiously, Birkut in Polish is old name of White-tailed Eagle, not Golden.

    Falconer friend told me that juvenile raptors (like many young predators) have only vague idea what prey is suitable. Hunters give juveniles tied animals or dead prey, teaching them to attack animals much bigger than their normal prey.

    I also seen fascinating pictures of Saker Falcon attacking and bringing down Grey Herons as pests of fishponds, several times bigger than themselves. Human dispatched the heron.

    BTW Beautiful illustration. Somehow, I am fascinated by all these old, wild illustrations – not like latte mocca pictures of today.

  6. #6 Wilbert Friesen
    December 10, 2010

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbdwn4mGmZ8

    Extinct giant nieuw-zeeland eagle attacking humans (sadly dubbed in Spanish)

  7. #7 Tor Bertin
    December 10, 2010

    There is a paper (Sørensen et al. 2008) that discusses a predation event on a brown bear cub by a golden eagle. They do say that the cub was exceptionally sickly and small relative to the other two cubs, so I doubt that this kind of thing is common occurrence.

  8. #8 Neil P
    December 10, 2010

    “Some wolves prove particularly challenging quarry, however, and there is the tale of one that foiled the attempts of 11 eagles – killing each one”

    Does kind of make you wonder about how much their owners care about the welfare of their birds!

  9. #9 Steve Bodio
    December 10, 2010

    The painting is by Vadim Gorbatov, a Moscow contemporary and a friend– much more here.

    Vladimir, I am a big fan of your website!

    I have a drawing by a Russian hunter with a fox skin and the eyepiece meat, evocatively titled “tidbits”– reproduced in my book Eagle Dreams.

    Bear cubs may be a rare quarry but as Darren says large mammals are not. I know of two people who have seen predation on pronghorns (adult), and the calf predation took place twenty miles away, on two separate occasions. I have also seen a wolf skin with talon marks and no bullet holes in western Mongolia that was less than a week old and still pliable– the one in the photo.

  10. #10 Tor Bertin
    December 10, 2010

    I should have specified that by their account, the golden eagle actually *flew off* with the cub, which is something that probably wouldn’t happen unless you have an exceptionally sickly individual (they gave an estimate of ~ 3 kg).

  11. #12 David Marjanović
    December 11, 2010

    And if you’re sceptical of the existence of wolf-killing eagles (for reasons I cannot quite understand, some people are)

    Those people seem to believe that eagles wouldn’t attack anything they can’t fly away with.

    That, however, is only true when there are too many too big predators on the ground.

  12. #13 Vladimir Dinets
    December 11, 2010

    Bear cubs are very small when they emerge from dens, and can be carried away by an eagle easily.
    Many birds of prey routinely attack animals they can’t carry away. Peregrine falcons attack geese (I’ve only seen it once, but it’s not a rare event), goshawks and eagle owls kill hares and grouse (Russian name for the Northern goshawk means “black grouse hawk”), etc. But I think the consensus in Russian literature is that golden eagles don’t normally hunt wolves in the wild – only foxes and jackals.

  13. #14 farandfew
    December 11, 2010

    And if you’re sceptical of the existence of wolf-killing eagles (for reasons I cannot quite understand, some people are)

    Is it more impressive to be able to kill a wolf, or to hold down a live one?

  14. #15 Walter S. Andriuzzi
    December 11, 2010

    “Steve Bodio told me about a case from Kazakhstan where a Golden eagle tried to take a Snow leopard, but the cat won”. Unsurprisingly ;)

  15. #16 jomega
    December 11, 2010

    Here’s some eagle huntin’ video on Youtube – seven minutes and thirty-four seconds of BAD ASS! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Re644qgnCtw

    Here’s the Youtube description:
    In western Mongolia, an ancient tradition of hunting with Golden Eagles is still alive. We know from history that Genghis Khan had 1,000 hunting birds – eagles, falcons and gyrfalcons – and so did Kubla Khan. There were protected areas in the steppe marked with stones where only the khans were allowed to hunt. The Kazakhs of Mongolia train their eagles to hunt and here the bird of prey is often considered a family member. The Berkutchi is a falconer who hunts with the Golden Eagle. The training of this bird was seen as difficult and even perilous even by the experienced Synchy. the bird is never a slave of its owner, only a partner in hunting. From ancient times, berkutchi-falconers in the nomadic herder societies had the role of preserving and stocking furs. The high social status of the berkutchi and his family was conditioned by the climate, as warm strong and durable clothing for the people during the winter seasons was a vital necessity. Best-suited for this were the pelts of wolves and foxes. Apart from hunting, berkutchi can give spiritual support to pregnant women, who experience or may experience difficulties in childbirth. Through the owner of the bird, which in the imagination of Asian peoples is a symbol of well-being and power. According to folk wisdom, a berkutchi is the indisputable authority in the sphere of childbirth or of renewing fertility. In the cultures of many nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Asia, it is said that a berkutchi, regardless of age, can make pregnant a woman who for a long time had not had children.

  16. #17 jomega
    December 11, 2010

    Okayimadumbass. Don’t know how I managed to miss the link in your post.

  17. #18 Jerzy
    December 12, 2010

    How mr Naish helped the tourism in Kazakhstan:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11977975

    Naturally, the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan!

  18. #19 Dartian
    December 13, 2010

    Darren:

    Steve Bodio told me about a case from Kazakhstan where a Golden eagle tried to take a Snow leopard, but the cat won.

    Cf. with the outcome of golden eagle vs. bobcat.

  19. #20 Dartian
    December 14, 2010

    Some further perspectives on this eagles-as-macropredators issue…

    Darren:

    Golden eagles can and do definitely kill coyotes and foxes

    Foxes (of several species) are indeed common prey items of golden eagles across the Northern Hemisphere. But the killing of adult coyotes – never mind wolves – by golden eagles seems to be quite exceptional. At any rate, there are very few such cases reported in the literature. There is Mason (2000), and I have seen ‘coyote’ (age unspecified) listed among prey remains recorded in North American golden eagle eyries (e.g., Olendorff, 1976). As for other species of eagles preying on large wild canids, I have read of a case where a pair of wedge-tailed eagles Aquila audax supposedly killed an adult dingo (I haven’t been able to locate the original reference, unfortunately). That’s pretty much it, at least AFAIK; if someone knows of other reliable accounts of natural predation by large raptors on large, healthy, adult canids in the wild, then please tell.

    some Golden eagles have become confident, regular predators of large mammals: the individuals in New Mexico that took to killing domestic cattle killed at least six calves and injured 48 (yes, forty-eight)

    But those figures also suggest that for every calf that the eagles managed to kill there were seven that they tried but failed to kill. That doesn’t sound like a particularly impressive kill-injury ratio to me (considering that calves are relatively defenceless domestic animals unable to outrun the eagles).

    References:

    Mason, J.R. 2000. Golden eagle attacks and kills adult male coyote. Journal of Raptor Research 34, 244-245.

    Olendorff, R.R. 1976. The food habits of North American golden eagles. American Midland Naturalist 95, 231-236.

  20. #21 Hai~Ren
    December 14, 2010

    Dartian:

    if someone knows of other reliable accounts of natural predation by large raptors on large, healthy, adult canids in the wild, then please tell.

    Not too sure if jackals qualify as “large” canids, but there seem to be anecdotal accounts of martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) preying on them. Hugo Van Lawick and Jane Goodall (then married to him) did witness a martial eagle carry off a subadult black-backed jackal(Canis mesomelas) (as mentioned in the IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group account for the black-backed jackal here.

    Rampant speculation from here onwards:

    I would agree that large raptor predation on large canids must be quite a rare occurrence. Maybe some of these involve newly fledged youngsters being a little ambitious in prey selection and somehow succeeding due to circumstances, or large mature adults that have learned how to handle such potentially dangerous prey. Ironic statement, I know.

    Besides grey wolf and coyote, it would be interesting to investigate golden eagle predation on other sympatric medium to large canid species such as golden jackal (Canis aureus, dhole (Cuon alpinus), and Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis).

    Aside from wedge-tailed and golden eagles, another species worth looking at as a possible large canid predator could be Verreaux’s eagle (Aquila verreauxii). I know, it’s a hyrax specialist, but it is possible that jackals or even Ethiopian wolf might rarely figure in its diet. I would say other plausible prey-predator relationships between large canids and Aquila would include dingo aka singing dog and Gurney’s eagle (A. gurneyi) in New Guinea and Wallacea, and golden jackal/grey wolf/dhole and eastern imperial eagle (A. heliaca) in various parts of Eurasia.

    While the focus has been largely on Aquila, I do wonder if we could also look at the various large forest-dwelling eagles, many of which would seem to take comparatively large prey, and which would seem to have a reasonable chance of taking out a large canid under the right circumstances.

    Possible candidates include African crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus), which could be a match for African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) or (more likely) jackals. In South American forests, harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja) might prove capable of taking bush dog (Speothos venaticus) or short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis), and in more open areas, maybe even maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus). Dingos might be vulnerable in areas where they are sympatric with Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) and New Guinea harpy eagle (Harpyopsis novaeguineae).

    As an aside, I wonder how come the forests of India, mainland Southeast Asia and Sundaland appear to lack the ecological equivalent of a harpy, Philippine or crowned eagle; maybe the various species of smaller hawk-eagles (Nisaetus spp.) already fill the niche.

  21. #22 Dartian
    December 15, 2010

    Hai~Ren:

    Not too sure if jackals qualify as “large” canids

    No, in this discussion they don’t; especially not black-backed jackals (the smallest of the jackals), and particularly not subadult individuals.

    I guess I should have been more specific: by ‘large’ canid I meant something similar in size to – or, preferably, larger than – an adult coyote. (There should be at least a two-fold weight difference between the raptor and the canid, to the latter’s favour.)

    Speaking of agonistic wolf – raptor encounters, by the way, Kumar (1996) has reported a curious incident. A family of Indian wolves (an adult pair with six puppies weighing an estimated 5 kg) were feeding on a blackbuck carcass which they had brought to their den, when suddenly a short-toed eagle Circaetus gallicus arrived at the scene. The eagle started harrassing the wolves by repeatedly swooping down at them, and each time the male wolf jumped up at it. When the eagle swooped down for the fifth time it got too low and the wolf succeeded in catching it. The eagle was immidiately killed (but not eaten).

    It is unclear why the eagle was behaving as it did; the short-toed eagle is a medium-sized raptor which usually feeds near-exclusively on snakes and lizards. It has only rarely been recorded as attempting to prey on mammals as large as those wolf pups were, and it doesn’t typically eat carrion either. If – and that’s a big if – this was indeed an actual predation attempt, the eagle miscalculated its chances pretty badly.

    Reference:

    Kumar, S. 1996. Unusual interaction between wolf and short-toed eagle. Journal of Raptor Research 30, 41-42.

  22. #23 Lyle G
    December 16, 2010

    Many years ago, there was a movie called ‘Vally of the Eagles,’ Which showed an alpine community that used eagles to hunt wolves. They couldn’t use guns for fear of avalanches.

  23. #24 Anshelm
    December 17, 2010

    Here’s the thing you’ve been waiting for: eagle vs. man.

    http://www.burdr.com/2009/12/golden-eagle-attacks-cameraman/

    I’ve had a few interesting conversations on the topic with fellow birders. Once I pondered “Since ringers need a helmet when going to nests of Ural Owls that weigh less than 1 kg, if you were attacked by a 5 kg Eagle…” “You’re dead”, was the sentence-cutting reply.

    A ringer also once told me, that if eagles would ever start attacking people around their nests, he would switch to philately.

  24. #25 Bibliophile
    December 18, 2010

    As regards the owners of these eagles and their care for their birds, the Bodia book referenced above makes it clear that most Mongolian hunters who use birds won’t even think of sending them after a wolf due to the risk to the eagle, to whom they really do develop close bonds. Less scrupulous owners fly them after game that can harm the bird, of course, but most falconers there are after food animals such as hares or smaller birds just like anywhere else.

    Very interesting article, thanks Mr. Naish!

  25. #26 m
    February 1, 2011

    Hi dear
    would ou please send me nature picture

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