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Eagles Adopt—Not Attack—a Red-Tailed Hawk Chick

Bird lovers are watching with bated breath to see if the eagles will keep feeding the little guy or turn him into dinner

smithsonian.com

In a nest positioned in a tall Douglas fir in Sidney, British Columbia, one of the most nail-biting family dramas is taking place. For weeks, a pair of bald eagles have been raising an adopted red-tailed hawk chick as their own, Merrit Kennedy reports for NPR.

“The fact that it survived so long is absolutely amazing,” raptor specialist David Bird at McGill University in Montreal tells Kevin Griffin at The Vancouver Sun. With the little bird set to fledge out of the nest sometime this week, bird watchers are anxiously watching. “The big question is: Will it survive the next week to get out of the nest?”

As Kennedy reports, red-tails and eagles are not usually on the best of terms. Sometimes they even fight to the death. So on May 31, birders at the Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary were taken aback when they spotted the little hawk begging for food in the nest along with three eaglets. Since then dozens of bird watchers and photographers have watched it both beg and receive food from its adoptive parents.

No one is certain how the little bird ended up in the nest. Bird tells Griffin that it’s possible the eagles swooped down on a hawk's nest, scooping up two or three chicks for dinner. One of them may have survived the attack and wound up in the eagles' nest. The chick likely kept begging for food by instinct and the eagles, not noticing the difference, started feeding it.

It's also possible that a female red-tail with an egg in her oviduct was harassing an eagle, which then grabbed her and took her home for supper, writes David Hancock, founder of the Hancock Wildlife Foundation, the organization monitoring the nest. The egg could have then rolled out into the nest and hatched. In fact, Hancock says he’s heard stories about just that happening from several bird watchers.

As Keith Vass at Chek News reports, the main danger for the little hawk probably comes from his big siblings, which are 10 weeks old. Bird tells Vass that it’s possible the growing birds may kill their smaller sibling if they get peckish while their parents are away.

And even if the little hawk does make it out of the nest and into adulthood there’s one more peril of being raised by eagles. Bird says raptors imprint on the other birds around them at an early age, and the red-tailed hawk may be confused when it’s time to make his or her own chicks. “And a bald eagle being courted by a red-tailed hawk is going to threaten the red-tailed hawk with being eaten, so that’s a non-starter,” he says.

Then again, as Griffin reports, the baby hawk is quite feisty and just might have a chance of survival.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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