An eagle perched near my window.
I see Bald Eagles often, usually some distance from the house. When eagles do land nearby, they’ll scoot if I simply step to a window. So when I saw the eagle in my tree, I stood back from the glass, as usual. But after an hour, I just had to try for a closer look through my camera.
With tiny, slow steps I moved to the sliding glass door. The eagle didn’t seem to notice. Then I inched the door open a crack. The bird didn’t budge. I pushed again, just enough to get the lens outside.
The door groaned, and the eagle turned and looked my way.
After a long stare, it resumed gazing at the lake below, presumably looking for food.
I watched and filmed the eagle for another hour. And I wondered: Why didn’t this bird take off when it saw me? And why did its beak look a little beat up? It had dark gray markings as though it had been scraped. You can see them here and in the photo at the top of this post.
The marks seem to outline his nares (dark oblong holes for breathing) and the cere—a leathery band that protects the nares. On other adult eagles I’ve seen, these landmarks are also visible, but not dark or frayed. I asked a friend, Kate, if she might share some of her many Bald Eagle photos for comparison. Here are two—one with a ‘clean’ beak, and another with markings a little more like my visitor’s:
Here’s a video snippet of my avian neighbor’s long visit. I think you’ll agree he looked fearlessly into the camera. After the video, I’ll share why the beak markings caught my eye—and my theory on why the bird didn’t care that I was so close and staring back. What explains this eagle’s nerves of steel? My hypothesis: Its marked-up beak signals a senior-citizen bird. Eagles can live thirty years. Had an elder eagle become wise like an owl and figured out that a window creature—me—isn’t a threat?
I sent that question to a couple of raptor centers: Lake Milton Raptor Education Center in SW Michigan and The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
And I learned that I was dead wrong. Indeed the opposite is true. Experts at both centers told me that the dark areas on the beak are left over from the bird’s juvenile stage. Bald Eagles change from brown-feathered and dark-beaked to their characteristic white top, white tail, and yellow beak over five years. The Minnesota center also pointed out that in the photo I sent, the bird’s eyes were not bright yellow; Bald Eagles’ eyes also change from brown. They said that eagles show quite a bit of variation between individuals and there are not reliable beak markings to help age an eagle once it reaches adult plumage. Both experts said my visitor is probably five years old—a young adult.
So, back to my pondering as I perched by the window. If not from wisdom, why didn’t the bird bolt when it saw me?
Confidence of youth, perhaps?
I’ll end with some links you might find interesting.
First, my friend Kate, whose online moniker is pacificnorthwestkate. She’s a voice for the wild, championing wildlife protection and nature conservation. Her videos are being used by conservation groups to stop nature exploitation and the overdevelopment of a Vancouver shipping terminal which would damage migratory birdlife and marine wildlife, fish, mammals, and whales. Kate’s project, Wild Vancouver, is on hold because of the pandemic. But when that’s over, she’ll be giving ethical nature walks and tours in Vancouver. Meanwhile, you can see beautiful Vancouver through her eyes on her YouTube channel.
The Lake Milton Raptor Center takes in hundreds of birds a year. Their goal is to rehab and release the birds back into the wild. The center has educational programs they put on for schools and organizations—live raptors up close and personal!
The Raptor Center, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota specializes in the medical care, rehabilitation, and conservation of eagles, hawks, owls, and falcons.
And here’s a terrific photo guide to Bald Eagles’ changing plumage as they mature. It’s the simplest-to-use guide I’ve ever found.