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.
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.
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.
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…
- Yet again, poor little deer gets killed by big nasty eagle
- The most amazing eagle footage ever….. faked
- When eagles go bad, all over again
And for more on raptors, see…
- Life-size two-dimensional condors and teratorns
- Titan-hawks and other super-raptors
- Raptor makes killing in university grounds
- Screwed-up Secretary bird
- Condors and vultures: their postures, their ‘bald heads’ and their sheer ecological importance
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