Monthly Archives: April 2014

Nine-Week-Old Eaglets

We’ve announced the winner of our 2014 Eaglet-Naming Contest. We won’t give it away here, so please check out the contest page for all the details. And thanks so much to all those who sent in their names this year — we had a wonderful selection of entries! It was a shame we could only choose two.

Our eaglets are nine weeks old, and they’re nearing the time when they’ll begin branching. Branching is when they’ll hop out onto the branches of their nest tree and practice perching and holding their wings up to the wind. This will be the last step in their development before taking their first flight.

But in the meantime, the eaglets are spending a lot of time flapping and hopping around the nest. Their wingspan is close to adult size, which can range from 6-8 feet depending on the gender and location of the eagle (Alaska bald eagles tend to be larger than our Mid-Atlantic eagles).

In the video below, you can see both eaglets testing out their wings. Notice how they sometimes hold their wings out to get the feel of the wind moving over them — this is practice for when they’ll be flying through the air and using the wind to manipulate their flight. Also note how they use their talons to grip the nest — this is to prevent a gust of wind from accidentally taking them out of the nest before they’re ready. As you can see in the video, when the eaglets are flapping, it’s hard to avoid getting smacked in the head with a wing, so this is one of the reasons why the parents don’t spend as much time on the nest. It’s getting too crowded!

Now that the eaglets are almost fully grown, they’re also becoming much more aggressive at mealtime, but not with each other — with the poor parent who brings in the food. The eaglets are now at the size where they can literally rip the food out of the parent’s talons, sometimes nipping the parent’s “toes” in the process. In the video below, you can see an example of this.

The funny thing is, after the eaglets grab the food away, they often just stand there and wait for the parent to feed it to them. In fact, in the past week we’ve seen some photos on the cam of the eaglets standing over fish that the parent has dropped off, but they don’t eat it — they wait for the parent to come back and feed them, even though the chicks are definitely capable of feeding themselves at this point. Teenagers!

In addition to flapping, one of the other tasks our eaglets are becoming acquainted with is preening. A bald eagle has to keep its feathers in good shape in order to fly and to have protection from the elements. Eagles use their beaks to remove food and debris from their feathers, and to tidy them up. They also take oil from a gland at the base of their tail and rub that through their feathers to ensure the feathers remain waterproof.

Bald eagle preening

Besides preening, eagles also keep their feathers in good shape by molting (shedding old feathers and growing new ones). Over the next 4-5 years, the eaglets’ feathers will slowly transition to the adult plumage of an all-white head and tail. Once they have their adult feathers, they will likely molt their flight feathers about every year, but these feathers will not molt all at the same time. Matched flight feathers are usually lost at different times, so the eagle is never without the ability to fly. An eagle depends on flight for feeding itself and its young, so going without flight is never an option.

Until next time,
Lisa – webmaster
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Eaglets Flapping

Now that our eaglets are getting their first full set of feathers, we’re seeing a good bit of flapping in the nest as the eaglets build up their flight muscles. Below is a video from April 4 that shows our eaglets in action. At the beginning of the video the older chick gives a couple big stretches, then lines up for a nice slicing (the fancy word for pooping) maneuver. If you watch closely, it clears the branches and hits the ground. (Don’t walk under an eagle nest!) Next our older eaglet gives a nice little flap and shows us his blood feathers or pin feathers. Then he walks over and annoys his little sibling, which is always fun. Finally he uses his big talon to scratch at the pin feathers on his head, which likely itch.

If you check out our younger chick in the video, you can see he has a nice big crop on his chest (recently fed) and then he gives a little flap toward the end of the video, and you can see his blood feathers as well.

An adult bald eagle has around 7,200 feathers. Eagle feathers come in a variety of types, including:

  • Primary feathers, which can be spread out like fingers on a hand to reduce drag.
  • Secondary feathers, which can be moved down to increase drag or up to reduce it.
  • Tail feathers, which are used for steering.
  • Coverts, which make the wing thicker in front, so that air will flow faster over the top of the wing.

Eaglet Feathers

You can learn more about eagle feathers and flight on the Bald Eagle’s Quest for Flight web page. Also check out the Feather Atlas run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where you can search on bald eagle and golden eagle feathers and see photo examples.

Speaking of photo examples, below is a nice chart that the USFWS put together showing how bald eagle feathers compare among adult and juvenile eagles. In this collection are two feather types we haven’t mentioned yet — plume and body feathers, which sit closer to the eagle’s body, help give it shape, and provide insulation for warmth.

Eagle Feathers

Bald eagle feathers are valued even today for their use in Native American religious ceremonies. When we find a dead eagle or parts of an eagle at Blackwater NWR, the staff turn them over to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado where the USFWS distributes deceased eagles, feathers, and parts to members of Federally Recognized Tribes for religious purposes. By overseeing the distribution of bald and golden eagle parts, the USFWS helps to ensure the fair distribution of eagle remains and also helps to reduce the black market demand for these items.

In our next blog post we’ll talk about feather molting and preening, which is how our eagles keep their feathers in tip-top shape.

Until next time,
Lisa – webmaster
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Blood Feathers

Our two eaglets are around six weeks old at this point, and you can see that they’re quickly developing dark areas all over their bodies. These dark areas are where their blood feathers — or pin feathers — are growing. They’re called “blood” feathers because each feather (which looks like a “pin”) is enclosed in a blood-filled shaft that feeds the feather. The color of the blood in the shaft looks blue from our angle, as you can see in this photo of an eaglet from a nest in Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in east central Michigan. Notice the dark brown feather protruding from the shaft. Once the feather is fully grown, the shaft will fall off or the eaglet will pull it off, and the feather will unfurl.

Michigan eaglet in nest

Eaglet in nest. Photo by Jeremy N. Moore/USFWS

Eventually the eaglet will develop feathers all over its body, and when the feathers are completely developed, the eaglet will be dark brown in color. The eaglet will not develop its distinctive white head and tail until it reaches maturity, at about 4-5 years of age.

In the video below, you can watch biologists working with an eaglet at Stony Creek Metropark (courtesy of Macomb Audubon Society). The eaglet in the video is six weeks old — about the same age as our chicks. This eaglet is probably close in appearance to our older chick. Watching the video, you can see the blood feathers on this eaglet’s wing, and you can also get a new appreciation for how big our chicks’ beaks and talons are about now.

As you might have seen me mention on the cam page a little while ago, we’ll be launching the 2014 Eaglet-Naming Contest on April 9 now that our two chicks look like they’re healthy and going to make it to fledgling age. On the afternoon of April 9, we’ll post a note on the cam page with details on how to enter our contest.

Until next time,
Lisa – webmaster
Support the Blackwater Cams
Contact Us

Categories: eaglet, feathers | Leave a comment

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