Dangerous Birds

A lot of people seem to forget that, though Deinonychus  and even New Zealand’s Moa and Maori- eating Haast’s eagle are gone, we still have some dangerous modern dinosaurs. This thought was prompted by an e-mail discussion among well- informed friends last week.

My money for real danger is on Stephanoaetus coronatus, which always seems to be sizing you up for a meal– they SCARE me. Craig Golden, who photographed one that was used for monkey control in Zimbabwe, told me that until she had killed, she just kept watching him, in a way he didn’t like at all. The artist D. M. Reid- Henry had one kill a German shepherd in a London park (he then emigrated, also to  to Zimbabwe). They are also as agile as big Goshawks– just below is  pic of scientist, falconer, and saluki man Alberto Palleroni with a “little” male. They have been credited with the death of the “Taung baby” australopithecine in SouthAfrica, and implicated in the death of children in Zambia.

But any of the  big jungle eagles, or the Golden, will do. Anyone who thinks birds are less scary than “lizards”  has no experience with big predators.

The discussion  began with this photo of a baby coronatus and her FEET, on Matt’s Facebook.

Matt said: “Hard to imagine there have been bigger eagles but then, there were bigger dinosaurs too!”

To which Arthur replied: “Have been?  Are!  I think the Harpy and Philippine and Steller’s sea eagle at least are bigger.”

And everybody jumped in. Annyushka, on vacation in Europe: “Female Harpies and Crowned eagles basically tie for weight, up to 22-23lbs. Steller’s are the largest for pure wingspan; a big female will get just over 8ft. Phillipines have extraordinarily-long tails, but are still smaller than the other 2 forest eagles.”

A big Harpy.

Matt again: ” When I was 15 I walked up to the Harpy cage at Summit Gardens in Panama, which was your basic chain link fence box and contained two adult birds on perches that ran lengthwise across the inclosure. One of the perches came about to my chest height, and as I walked up to the perch, the larger of the two birds walked with purpose toward me down the plank, her talons wrapping around the 2X4 like a twig.

“We each stopped a few inches apart, separated mostly by air and the fact that her feet were too big to fit through the aperture of wire between us.  She bent down to look me in the eye and flipped her head sideways in the gesture I know now to be a raptor’s playful engagement. But there was no question which of us was the greater creature, or all else equal and minus a thin metal screen, which of us would be at the others’ mercy.

“A few minutes later, the zoo keeper arrived with a live chicken under one arm and clucked to his charges to get their attention.  The female’s gaze never left me. But the male flapped down with a palpable whoosh and waited on the ground by the gate for his dinner.  The man tossed the chicken in, which took about a step before the Harpy’s foot took it wholly by the chest and gave it a squeeze, killing it all but for a few brief spasms.

“My feeling since then about the relative sizes of eagles is that once they reach the minimum size required to crush a 15 yer old’s head, a few extra pounds or inches are immaterial.  :)”

Me: “And the Lammergeier, though not an eagle, is impressive too, as are the Lappet-faced and Eurasian black vultures, all of which I have been privileged to see in the wild, the last two in the Tian Shan.The Lappet-faced vulture was dominating a wary crowd of Griffon vultures which stood in a circle around it as it fed on the waste of a crocodile, as intimidated as though it were a lion. Jonathan Kingdon has a skull of one I’ve always coveted. He says they kill antelope!”

Torgos by Reid;  Lammergeier by Dr Rock

Matt: “The local zoo here has a lappet faced vulture that, when we first moved here to La., they were interested in having me train for flight display.  I had never even seen one, but I thought, how big could the thing possibly be?  When they showed me the bird, the notion of training it (at least my training of it) went out the window.  Somehow even a large eagle seems comprehensible and manageable as a scaled-up hawk.  And plenty of people train them, obviously.

“But a vulture at that size–and these old world jobs are basically long necked eagles; and the LFV in particular clearly has working feet—are able to get you from more angles with more weapons.

“My friend Eric Edwards, who has trained white backed vultures for shows, respects them appropriately. They had a bit in one show I recall where the audience was asked to count down from 10: the time it took the WBV on Eric’s fist to turn a large turkey drum stick to bare bone.”

Arthur on the Haast’s:”Where the authors estimate that it was about 30% heavier than a harpy.  I would love to see this re-done with more data points and with the knowledge that the bird was in fact a hieraaetuus.  Still, as the authors point out, even if they are 10% off, the eagle was still gigantic and still bigger than a harpy.

“The picture they paint is of a goshawk-ish creature.  Relatively short wings, long tail, and muscles optimized for bursts of speed.

“Strange to think that there was, within recent human history, an ecosystem on a biggish chunk of land where the apex predator was flying.

“I wonder what that would have meant for the temperament of the birds.  Most eagles are kings of the air, but they can still get eaten on the land by all sorts of mammalian predators.  Prior to humans the only threat to an adult Haast’s eagle would have been another Haast’s eagle.

“I would also love to see a re-appraisal of the possible prey selection of the Haast’s eagle based on the knowledge that their was only one giant moa species; the multiplicity of sizes of remains being the result of sexual dimorphism!”

Two more thoughts, and images.The late Colonel Jeff Cooper, justly famed for pistol craft, once wrote me the following. note when I told him that the Kazakhs hunt wolves with eagles: “PUPPIES, perhaps; hundred pounders, unlikely!” Trouble is, he wrote that after seeing THIS:

(To which Jonathan Hanson responded “He was a great man, but he should have perished in the Cretaceous Extinction Event.”)

And here are Darren Naish’s Killer Eagles:


There has been quite a bit of discussion in my crowd as to what the Bald Eagle in this photo is carrying, with guesses ranging from a cat to a  prairie dog (the last group obviously hasn’t seen an eagle up close!)

Keith Brady, who knows the photographer, solved the problem: it is a yellow- bellied marmot: photo by Ken Risi.

Image query

David W in Texas, an old falconer like me, sent this unsourced image. In it, a slightly stylized eagle appears to be attacking a human, while the nose of a tazi just enters lower left. Anybody out there who can translate the title or tell us anything about it? (Style but not subject of art looks Japanese to me).

Hereditary cool?

My late friend Aralbai of Bayan Olgii was sometimes known as “The Coolest Man in the World”,  on the strength of this sort of… call it an Internet poster made (not by us) of him:

Here he is in younger days, with his son in 1997 on our first expedition.

He was a dedicated hunter, and like me he could get impatient at the slow pace and artifice of photography and films. Here, on the first trip, he is rolling a cigarette during a break. He grinned up at me, offered me a home- rolled, and delivered an opinion of the proceedings behind with several well- chosen swear words. In English.

He became a mentor to Lauren, shown here with him on her first trip, when she was 16. He was her first eagle teacher.

In her Fulbright year she hunted, but also did things like study nests.

Aralbai and his now- grown son also rode with Cat during those years. A Wyoming cowgirl is as much a member of the club of the horse and the guild of long riders as a Kazakh;  after beating Armanbek in an improvised race, Cat won a silver- embellished riding crop. He is grinning here, and he seems unembarrassed. At this point Aralbai still looked good too…

And then he was gone, quickly, of the cancer that seems to take so many of my generation there. It IS downwind, not too far, from the historic Soviet nuclear test sites in Kazakhstan. Lauren helped him get to the big falconry fiesta in the Arabian Gulf; I would love to have gotten his impressions…

But his son may also explore other shores. The image below, sent again as a found object by a friend, suggests he has inherited the title.

Random images from Africa

I’m sorting images from our South Africa trip this summer, and came across a few to share. This is a crested eagle – a species we saw frequently.

I’m not positive, but I think this next one is a snake eagle.

I snapped this next image in a village shop in Lesotho, and of course it reminded me of Steve. If you read the print, the eggs are from Magdelena (South Africa, not New Mexico).

Dispatch From Mongolia (Lauren McGough)

These flights! They are amazing and addictive. I liken these eagles to Houbara spotter falcons, who somehow see that rust colored spot scooting along in the distance – and immediately become pure predatory power. Many times I never see the fox, I just trust that that is what the eagle sees. Once she’s powered out over the valley, becoming just a speck herself, I often finally see the fox myself, and hold my breath as I wait for the two to converge. In a way, its like longwinging. My favorite flight style, which has a seemingly low success rate, but is spectacular to watch, is when the eagle keeps all of her height from the mountain and when directly over the fox, folds into a teardrop and stoops completely vertically. The fox has a lot of options to fool the eagle then, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing an eagle, all grace and raw power, stoop hundreds of feet.

There have been many great things, but I’ve also had some troubles lately. On a very windy day, we were on the mountaintop waiting for the slip, flying two passage eagles together. A fox appeared, we two slipped, and waited. The fox was clever, and disappeared. The eagles broke off pursuit and began to fly aimlessly, very buoyant in the wind. The mountain we were on was stupidly steep (one where you secretly hope you don’t get a slip). It was impossible to ride down, we had to get off of our horses and walk them down, which took a good 20 minutes. By that time, the eagles had gone and we were baffled. We rode across the valley for a good half hour with lures until finally we spotted them soaring along another mountain ridge. If I thought the other mountain was steep, this one was a great deal more so. Suddenly both eagles stooped and caught a Pallas’ cat on this mountainside. It was nothing but a stream of stones, no way one could ride up or climb (without equipment anyway, and even then…). We couldn’t do anything but gaze up those hundreds of feet (it seemed that high) while the eagles broke in and started to eat their fill. The other falconer in desperation started to attempt to climb, but before I knew it both eagles had bumped, regained their soar, were soon specks in the sky, and then flew away upwind out of sight. What an awful, lonely, sinking feeling that is. You feel like such a puny, weak creature when you try to follow an eagle with nothing but a cheap pair of binoculars and a pony-sized horse.

But follow her I did. Or at least I tried to. And, defying all my expectations, I found her on a dead horse on the steppe, just before nightfall. I was able to approach close enough to grab her jesses…phew! The poor other falconer didn’t find his eagle, and as far as I know, is still looking for her.

Eagle & Child

My reaction in email was:

Consensus is that it is fake– have been dealing with tons of mail on it. I heard of one eagle in Mongolia 20 years ago that attacked a kid but it is rare if it happens.

Africa’s Crowned eagle is another story. A primate and antelope predator of the forest, it has been implicated in several attacks on kids and in the fifties (I think without checking date) a baby’s skull was found in a nest in Zambia. It was also what probably killed the Australopithcine fossil called “the Taung Baby”. A friend who knew one flown in Zimbabwe for baboon control said she made him very nervous before she had killed. I also know of one that killed a German shepherd in London. Here is Alberto Palleroni flying the much smaller male, and a photo of the Zimbabwe bird by Craig Golden, who told me the tale.

I might add that the only ones I ever saw at any length, a pair owned by Mima Parry- Jones in England, were unnerving in their catlike Gos agility– the male could fly straight up ten feet– and their yellow- eyed appraising stare…

UPDATE: After examining I don’t even think the bird who comes close is an eagle– if it is “real” at all, I think it is a blown up image of a red kite! See the shape of the wings, and of the tail as she passes… at first it looks convex, but as she gets beyond it looks concave and the wing shape is right. Color looks like the less forked immature. I have seen a few real ones, and Tom Russell’s father- in- law sent me some thing from Switzerland last year of a guy that feeds hundreds in the winter. Lots of images to choose from there!

A small reward

I have an irrational love for small biomorphic objects– toys, sculptures, pins, animal images from other cultures. My family knows this. Last weekend, in celebration of the imminent publication of An Eternity of Eagles, the Peculiars picked up this tiny Harpy eagle, carved from a native nut by some South Americans, at the International folk Art Fair in Santa Fe. The tiny dragon has a lot of character. In the first photo she stands in front of a soapstone native Bald eagle from Reid and Connie Farmer and a photo of the VLA by local photographer Michael Mideke; in the second she stares down a relative drawn by artist- blogger Carel Brest van Kempen.

UPDATE: Jackson shows us the maker here. And Annie D, where to get one.

Links, Pix, & Assorted Phenomena…

Lauren’s Aquiling is up and running again and, at least until her book on her year among the Kazakhs is out, the best place for exotic falconry and adventure tales…

There is some pretty funny and often grotesque animal photography up at Nature Wants to Eat You. HT Annie Davidson, who also sent this video of a walking octopus.

Tim Gallagher, who recently completed a book on his harrowing expedition to the heart of the Narcotraficante strongholds of the Sierra Madre in search of the (almost?) extinct Imperial woodpecker, wrote the short version here, and added a link to the only videos of this largest of all woodpeckers…

Dr Joseph Rock explored the remotest parts of central Asia and southwestern China for the National Geographic in the twenties and thirties. Teddy Roosevelt’s big- game hunting sons thought Minya Konka in “his” territory near the border of Szechuan and Tibet– he wrote about in in 1930– was higher than Everest. A couple more Americans laid siege to it in 1935 (they were also hunters, armed with a Springfield .30- 06 and two “heavy” SMLE’s) and found it was formidable but not quite that high. Yvon Chouinard, Al Read, Kim Schmitz, Rick Ridgeway, and Harry Frishman (Peculiar’s biological dad) made another attempt on it in 1980, not long before Harry was killed in a climb in his “backyard” Tetons, but they ran into disaster. Bruce Chatwin allegedly caught the legendary “bat fungus” that did in his AIDS- compromised body in a cave in the vicinity, which is also home to the Naxi people and their still- living goshawk falconry. (Chatwin also put Rock’s book, and Emperor Frederic II’s falconry text de Arte Venandi cum Avibus, into his posthumous story “The Estate of Maximilian Tod”).

Obviously there is a book there, and eventually I hope to go, with Lib and Peculiar. Meanwhile I suspect the greatest single source of useful material is at the Arnold Arboretum near Boston, where Rock’s archives reside, full of treasures like this photo:

(“Horned Rifles” too!)