Tuffy the hawklet’s new family have been aggressive to the little bird, says wildlife photographer
Life isn't easy for a baby hawk raised by bald eagles.
It's been about a month since a mother eagle in Santa Clara County, Calif., arrived home to her nest with a live baby red-tailed hawk clutched in her talons.
Instead of chomping the bird to bits and feeding it to her eaglet, she surprised birdwatchers by instead appearing to adopt him as her own. But this story of a rare mixed-bird family may not have a fairy-tale ending.
According to wildlife photographer Doug Gillard, who's been watching the birds, both the mother and her eaglet have acted aggressively toward their new nestmate.
"It's really a rough environment," Gillard told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
Even if the hawk reaches adulthood, one expert told CBC he'll have a difficult journey ahead of him.
Hormones and luck
Gillard has long been documenting the original family of two eagles and one eaglet. He was there when the baby hawk arrived on the scene in late May.
"I was packing up, getting ready to go, and I heard the eaglet get very excited. And that usually means that food is coming in," he said.
He grabbed his camera and began shooting as the bird of prey swooped above his head, clutching her prey.
It wasn't until he got home and examined the photos that he realized she'd brought home a living, red-tailed baby hawk.
He figured the little guy was doomed.
"I mean, bald eagles and red tail hawks are mortal enemies," he said. "I just assumed that it was going to be lunch."
But a few weeks later, he saw got a welcome surprise.
"I saw this little cotton-ball head pop up. I'm like, oh my gosh, the little hawklet is alive. Wow," he said. "I couldn't believe it."
He nicknamed the bird Tuffy, because he's so tough.
Ornithologist David Bird, a professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal's McGill University, says this is a rare, but not unheard of, phenomenon.
Last year, bald eagles near Nanaimo, B.C., adopted a baby hawk. A similar inter-species family made headlines in Sydney, B.C., in 2017. Bird says he's heard of at least two others incidents of bald eagles raising red-tailed hawks in the eastern U.S.
While it may seem like a heartwarming act of love, Bird says it really comes down to luck and hormones.
Bald eagles will typically raid the nest of other large birds to eat their young, he said. But every now and then — despite the eagle's powerful talons — the baby birds will survive the ordeal unscathed.
"Occasionally, when they're dropped in the nest, they're hungry and they don't realize what dangers they're in. They have no idea. They just start begging for food," he said.
"Then what happens is the parent looks at this begging chick and the maternal hormones to feed that chick override the desire to kill it and feed it to … her own chicks."
They adopted 1 hawklet — but possibly ate another
But it's not easy being a hawk in an eagle's nest.
Bird says sometimes the much bigger eagle siblings, or even the parents, will kill the new hawk — especially if it gets injured.
"As soon as some blood appears from a little nip here and there, then blood is a really strong stimulus for an eagle to finish it off and eat it," he said.
In fact, a week after Tuffy's arrival, Gillard says the mother eagle brought home another baby hawk. This one, he said, didn't survive.
Gillard says he isn't sure how it died, but he overheard a local rancher say the father eagle ate the baby up, and that "feathers were flying everywhere."
'No tenderness between siblings'
Gillard says Tuffy is facing a lot of aggression from Lola, his eagle sibling, though he's starting to learn to fight back.
Bird says bullying is pretty common between bird siblings — same species or otherwise.
"There's no tenderness between siblings. When you're a bird in the nest, whether you're a songbird or whether you're a bird of prey, basically it's get as much food in your mouth by outbegging [the] other guy," Bird said.
The mother eagle hasn't been much kinder to Tuffy, says Gilllard.
"She'll feed Tuffy maybe three or four bites and then peck him right in the head and try to bite him in the head," he said. "She does not do that with Lola."
Bird says that could be because eagles and hawks don't generally eat the same food, and Tuffy's reluctance to gobble up, say, fish instead of mice, may be frustrating for the mother.
According to Gillard's updates on Facebook, the father eagle isn't around as much as the mother, but does drop by now and again to deliver food to both baby birds.
A long road ahead
As of Monday, Gillard had posted an update on Facebook alongside video of the mother refusing to allow Tuffy back into the nest after he'd left for a practice flight. But he told CBC later that afternoon that the eagles did, eventually, permit Tuffy to return.
The fact Tuffy has grown strong enough to leave the nest is a promising sign, says Bird. But he'll need to have access to the nest for awhile yet, while he learns to fly strong and hunt prey.
"I'm sure there are lots of people rooting for this little guy. But, as a biologist, if he's not getting back to the nest to get the food that the parents are bringing there, and he has no help in locating food sources around … I'd say the chances are not good for this particular guy," Bird said.
The Bald Eagle
It's Canada's largest bird of prey. With incredible eyesight and giant talons, this majestic bird rules the skies. Meet the bald eagle!
Even if Tuffy grows to maturation and leaves the nest, Bird says he may not know how to hunt a red-tailed hawk's natural prey, or where to find it.
And if he thinks he's an eagle, he's going to find mating very difficult — if not deadly.
"If that bird, within like, two years, approaches the bald eagle with the intent of thinking 'This is my mate,' it's likely going to get killed by the larger bird — unless it's fast enough to get away," he said.
Interview with Doug Gillard produced by Morgan Passi
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