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The Baby-Snatching Bird Hoax Does Make You Wonder About Birds of Prey

At first everyone thought it was real: a viral video showing a bird of prey, allegedly a golden eagle, swooping down in a Montreal park to pick up a baby, then dropping the kid and flying away.

Now the verdict is in: It was a hoax, concocted as an art project. Yet even a fake video can spark questions about the behavior of birds of prey. For answers, we spoke with Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut.

What was your reaction to the video?

I was fooled by it initially until someone pointed out that Kenn Kaufman, author of many field guides, had posted on his Facebook page that it’s not a golden eagle. He believes it’s either computer generated animation or a staged event using a falconer’s bird.

Do birds of prey actually swoop in to grab a snack?

It depends on the species. Some catch things in midair—falcons do that. Other birds dive into cover and grab, say, rodents.

Golden eagles will take their prey out in open country as will red-tailed hawks and the like. They have incredible vision. They can be up very high and swoop down unannounced on their prey and can be quite successful. Not every time but it’s the element of surprise.

How does a bird decide whether the prey is the right size to snatch?

I’m not sure anybody knows how birds think, but I suspect their judgment is based on how hungry they are and what other prey are available. Even for a golden eagle, among the top predators in the bird world, its preference would be things that [present a] very low risk of being hurt: marmots and rabbits and grouse and things like that. But they have been known to take rather large prey. You can find video of golden eagles taking mountain goats off the side of cliffs.

Those videos are real?

They are. I believe David Attenborough showed a clip like that in The Life of Birds. I suspect it’s specialized behavior—and an ingenious technique. The goat outweighs the bird. The bird drags it off the cliff, lets the [fall] kill the animal, then goes down and scavenges.

Do smaller animals have a chance of escaping an eagle’s grip?

[Birds of prey] have talons that are very powerful, sharp and long—as sharp as cat’s claws but much longer. When the bird clamps on [an animal], the bird’s feet lock and have to be actively opened. That grip can kill small prey. BIrds of prey have very powerful beaks as well and will often use that as a killing implement.

Should humans ever fear a bird of prey?

Birds of prey are generally pretty shy of humans, and humans are a much greater threat to them – killing them and [causing] habitat loss. Birds of prey have good reason to be afraid of humans. Most cases [in which a bird of prey attacks a human] involve someone going up a ladder to the nest. Certain birds of prey are quite defensive of their nest.

There is one bird that is considered dangerous to humans. It’s not a raptor at all. It’s the cassowary, from Australia—a large ostrich-like bird with a very sharp toe used for self-defense. They have a reputation for being pretty cranky.

The other one that is sometimes dangerous is a mute swan. There are reports of them breaking the legs of people who get near their nest. They’re very large, with a wing span up to 94 inches and [a weight of] 24 to 26 pounds. They use their wings and bill to attack. They’re not a native species to North America. The rest of our swans are relatively docile.

So humans shouldn’t be too worried about birds of prey. What about our pets?

Great horned owls are notorious cat predators—whether it’s for food or to eliminate competition or because they just don’t like cats.

-Marc Silver

 

Comments

  1. Casey
    January 31, 5:56 pm

    Great horned owls love rabbits and small dogs, too. Our neighbor’s Yorkie was killed in their backyard by an owl.

  2. Rick Wright
    United States
    December 20, 2012, 4:57 pm

    “Everyone” thought it was real? “Even experienced North American birders”? You’re hanging out with a remarkably credulous crowd.

  3. John
    Rapid City SD
    December 20, 2012, 1:45 pm

    Great horned owls eating cats is very well documented, JDN. The town of Newell, SD was in terror several years ago about an assumed “cult” dismembering cats in their community. A sheriff’s deputy put that to rest when he watched a pair of GHO’s catch, dismember, and eat a cat…on Main Street. Cat are similar in size and behavior to skunks, a very common component of GHO diets.

  4. JDN
    Oregon
    December 20, 2012, 11:17 am

    How often do you see cat remains in pellet or other dietary analyses for horned owls in the professional literature?

    Myths about raptors are pervasive.

  5. Greg Neise
    Berwyn, IL
    December 19, 2012, 10:21 pm

    Also interesting how not a single birder that I know was fooled for a second. Why? Because the bird a) is not a Golden Eagle, and b) the sound dubbed in is a Red-tailed Hawk.

    As far as being worried about babies being snatched by eagles … I saw thousands of orcs, goblins and a few trolls this weekend. Should I be worried about them, too?

  6. Kristi
    Anacortes, WA
    December 19, 2012, 6:41 pm

    Trumpeter swans (North America’s largest waterfowl) can be fierce adversaries; a Skagit County, WA expert, Martha Jordan, describes entering an enclosure with one and being attacked and battered with the swan’s “wrists” — the leading angles of the wings. She escaped alive but was black-and-blue all over. She still loves swans; this one believed she was a threat.

  7. Adam Welz
    Brooklyn, NY
    December 19, 2012, 4:07 pm

    Interesting to see how many pros/scientists were initially fooled by this, including Lee Berger, the paleoanthropologist who has hypothesized that large eagles preyed on early hominids in Africa (a nice case of confirmation bias, perhaps? Check his Twitter feed @LeeRBerger for more).

    Even experienced North American birders were able to ignore the fact that Golden Eagles rarely occur in large cities, and if they do, are warily on migration and not likely to get so close to humans, and that the ‘keee’ call heard near the end of the video is the well-known call of the Red-tailed Hawk, not a Golden Eagle call. (I’ve often seen Red-tails get very close to people in New York City, especially while I was making my film about urban raptor enthusiasts, ‘Wild New York’. A Red-tail even used me as a hunting blind recently.)

    Are we becoming too eager for internet sensation and too blind to the amazing nature that’s all around us, even in the city?

    (BTW my film on urban raptor nuts can be seen here: http://www.vimeo.com/adamwelz/wildnewyork)