Of the world’s 60 eagles, only two species are regularly found in the United States and Canada – the bald eagle, our national bird, and the golden eagle. Both are found right here in Grant County.
The golden eagle is a global species found in the northern hemisphere. The February issue of Smithsonian Magazine had an article about golden eagles and told how biologist Linda Kerley (an eastern Oregonian) made an astounding discovery while studying tigers in Siberia. She found a stripped deer carcass in the snow with absolutely no sign of the presence of a land based predator.
When she checked her remote video camera, it revealed a golden eagle in the act of killing the deer. The largest animal I’d ever seen a golden eagle take here in the Ritter area was a wild turkey.
It is my personal belief that the bald eagle is not near the hunter as is the golden eagle. The bald eagle belongs to a group of eagles known as sea or fish eagles.
I’ve been fortunate enough to witness this species catching a wounded snow goose and, years later, a very healthy red-breasted merganser (fish duck). During Grant County’s winters, both species of these highly migratory birds can easily be seen in the cottonwood trees along the John Day River, gathered near road killed deer or on predator killed big game. A few are year-round residents.
This past January near Mosquito Creek on the Middle Fork, by the big corrals, I saw a road-killed whitetail doe at the edge of the road with a bald eagle perched nearby.
As I started photographing this bird, it was all but knocked out of the tree by an attacking golden eagle. For the next five minutes I was able to watch one of the most spectacular fights I’ve ever seen in nature. I witnessed them locking talons and tumbling hundreds of feet before disengaging.
I once heard a college professor describe that when you saw birds of prey lock talons and free fall, it was a courtship ritual. But I can guarantee that the behavior of the eagles I saw had nothing to do with romance. It was obvious that they were truly trying to kill one another.
So that the eagles would not come to the same fate as the doe, I dragged her carcass several yards away from the highway. When I came back the next day I was amazed to see that only hide and bones remained, and there was no evidence of mammal tracks in the fresh snow. At that time there were two bald eagles and one golden eagle nearby, and a large number of common ravens and black-billed magpies.
The bald eagle does not become the white-headed, white-tailed bird you so easily recognize until its fourth year. Many times the juvenile bald eagles outnumber the adults, so it’s very easy to mistake these young birds for golden eagles.
Using binoculars, it’s fairly simple to separate the two species once you know what you’re looking for.
Regardless which one you are viewing, you will be impressed by its fierce beauty.
Terry Steele is a naturalist and photographer who lives in the Ritter area.