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Life and death with the eagles

Posted: May 22, 2013 1:41 p.m.
Updated: May 24, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Last year about this time, I talked with you about how technology is bringing the magic of nature -- specifically, the majesty of American’s symbol, the bald eagle – into our living rooms.

In a number of places across the country, scientists and environmental organizations have set up small, solar-powered cameras known as webcams above the nests of mating bald eagles. The 24/7 cameras allow us to have round-the-clock views of the mating process, egg laying, hatching of young eaglets and eventually fledging -- the process by which chicks fly for the first time.

I was excited last spring because a pair of bald eagles on the Maine island where Wife Nancy and I spend time had produced eaglets for the first time in several years. I was caught up in the webcam process of watching the young chicks grow on a daily basis.

Seeing the adults flying in with fish and then shredding the feast with their talons and feeding it to the chicks – called “bobbleheads,” because that’s what they resemble – was mesmerizing.

Alas, it was also painful at times.

Eagles most often lay two eggs. In many instances, both chicks will survive and thrive, but often, the stronger of the two – or even the mother -- will attack the weaker one, literally pushing it out of the nest and killing it.

And that’s exactly what happened last year after I had first told you about the chicks.

Though I had explained this “natural selection” process many times to tourists in Acadia National Park, the webcam brought it to life in its painful reality

It was searing to watch.

At about two months (it takes about three months after hatching for young eagles to fly), the larger and stronger chick began attacking its sibling. I’m not sure how a young eagle learns to fight like that at only two months of age, but this gal -- not sure it was a female, but they’re larger than males, and it was the bigger of the two eaglets -- was vicious.

Day after day she beat at the younger chick, pushing it closer and closer to the edge of the nest, until she finally kicked it right over the edge. The fall of about 50 feet killed the smaller chick.

After that, the surviving eaglet -- it was named Eden by its many webcam followers -- grew and thrived.

I know this is the natural order of things, and I had studied the process. But reading a description on a screen was nothing like seeing it in its cruel circumstance. Day after day, the stronger chick continued its attacks, which in most cases consisted of flapping its little wings violently against its sibling and pecking at it.

Then the pushing began, culminating in the final, fatal fall.

The Maine webcam site, as almost all of them do, has a spot where viewers can comment in real time. The many people who follow the site were just as fascinated -- and sad -- about the turn of events as I was.

Time went on, and Eden soon began flapping her wings regularly, this time testing them for her first flight. Then she began hopping from branch to branch in the giant pine that holds the huge nest.

(Eagles’ nests, by the way, weigh up to half a ton, and residing eagles add material to them each year.)

In mid-July, Eden took her first flight, landing in a nearby tree and gradually becoming more and more confident in her soaring ability.

Now, a year later, she’s left the nesting area to carve out her own life, but there are two young chicks in that nest, growing each day.

I’m hoping both will survive, but if nature takes another cruel turn, so be it.

You can Google “eagle cams” and find several around the country. Now popping up are puffin cams, seal cams and many other marvels that allow us to look into a world we had never seen before.

Just be warned: they don’t all turn out like Disney movies.

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