Branching out, eaglet style

It was the constant mewling — like a cross between an eagle and a sea gull and a whining child — that caught our attention.

When my partner and I ventured out on the rocks outside our safari tent at So Damn Lucky Glamping on Barclay Sound, we discovered a juvenile bald eagle perched on a high tree branch, flapping its wings uncertainly and looking quite tentative about the whole thing.

The eaglet was in the midst of “branching” — the developmental stage in which an eaglet ventures out to branches in its nest tree and spends time flexing and flapping its wings, walking or hopping around and making short “flights” to other branches in the same tree. The exercise helps the eaglet build leg strength, wing strength, balance, body awareness — and the courage — to make its first actual flight.

This eaglet was about 9-10 weeks old, fully grown to adult size, and sporting the dark brown feather colouring of a juvenile. For the last two months, it had been growing up a storm, eating and sleeping, putting on up to a pound of body weight each week to reach its adult weight of 6-14 pounds (females being larger). For the last week or so, it had been actively moving about its nest, flexing its wings and making small “hover hops” to the nest edges. Now it was venturing further afield, getting ready to test that big 6 to 7.5 foot wing span.

Eaglets branch for about 7-10 days before they “fledge”, or make their first flight. If my partner and I had been around to see this eaglet fledge, we would likely have witnessed a lot of clumsy flapping, awkward dips and swerves, and a crooked trajectory, followed, hopefully, by a landing made without a shred of grace or poise. In fact, up to half of eaglet fledglings end up on the ground, where their parents continue to feed them until they work up the courage to try again.

After fledging, an eaglet hangs around its parents’ nest and home territory for another 4-5 weeks, honing its flying and landing skills, learning to hunt by trial and error, and returning to the nest at night to eat and rest. Parents provide all food for their offspring during this time.

After a month or two of practice and parental support, most juveniles leave the nest on their own initiative to seek out their own territories and mates.

I wish we had been around to see this squawking eaglet fledge. I watched it for 30-60 minutes each day, and the eaglet certainly seemed on the brink of readiness, hopping out to the far ends of branches and even making short flights to branches in a nearby tree.

Yet it seemed hesitant to take the big leap. Its parents were often nearby — perched in trees within sight, flying past, or keeping busy in the nest, apparently ignoring their vocal youngster. I wonder if they were withholding food to encourage their stubborn kiddo to fledge. The eaglet’s constant whining call, which it kept up without pause for its entire branching sessions of up to two hours each, certainly suggested, “I’m hungry — come feed me!”

Even eagles, it seems, must sometimes entice their young out of the nest!

I hope this young eagle found its wings quickly and safely.

For more information on branching and eaglet development, check out the following links:

Photo: BirdNote

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