Bald eagles fight, tangle and fall out of the sky

Sam Longfellow spotted a furious cluster of gray and white feathers shrieking high in a tree outside his home in Southern Maryland.

"It's a bald eagle," he called to his wife, Jaime. "Wait — two bald eagles."


The birds were hanging upside down, talons locked together over a branch, glaring at each other.

"They were hooked in the tree and neither of them were willing to let go," said Jaime Longfellow. "One of the birds was looking at the other one like, 'If you touch me, I swear…'"


The bald eagles the couple saw in their Calvert County yard Sunday morning are the latest in a series of angry, entangled eagles spotted across the country in recent years. The birds' talons become stuck together during aerial battles over territory, and the birds plummet onto roads or trees.

Growing eagle populations and shrinking habitats have led to more frequent, and more fierce, struggles over territory — and more sightings of stuck-together eagles.

Our national symbol has been caught in some awkward positions lately. From a Northern Virginia parking lot to an airport tarmac in Duluth, Minn., at least eight pairs of fuming birds have been discovered in each other's grasp in the past two years.

Two bald eagles became ensnared in a tree in Karen Hoagberg's yard in southern Prince George's County a few days before Christmas.

"They were hanging upside down and struggling," said Hoagberg. "You could tell they were not happy. One would yell and the other would yell back."

Like aerial arm wrestlers, male eagles grapple talon-to-talon, squawking and tumbling through the air. The birds usually break free as they fall, but occasionally their talons become locked together and the birds smash to the ground. The fights — and falls — are especially common in late winter as the eagles prepare to mate.

"This is the time of year when they're setting up territories and building nests," said David Brinker, central region ecologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Their hormones are pumping."

Bald eagles begin nesting earlier than song birds because their larger offspring spend several more weeks in the nest, Brinker said.


The population of bald eagles has soared in recent years, after being nearly decimated because of the pesticide DDT, which was banned in the early 1970s. In 1977, there were 44 mating pairs in Maryland, Brinker said. Now there are an estimated 500 pairs, he said.

The Chesapeake Bay is prime territory for bald eagles, which like to build their nests near the water's edge.

"The Chesapeake probably has the highest breeding concentration of bald eagles, likely anywhere in the world," said Todd Katzner, an eagle expert and research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

As more development springs up around the bay, competition over waterfront real estate grows more intense — for birds.

"If you're a bald eagle in the Chesapeake you've got to take somebody else's territory, because all the good stuff is already taken," said Katzner, who studies eagles near the bay.

The territorial tussles are similar to an eagle courtship ritual in which the male and female lock their talons together. The couple whirls through the air before soaring apart.


The battles are less graceful. Without their wings outstretched, the birds begin to fall. Males generally do the fighting, although sometimes females spar with other females, Katzner said.

Bald eagles have powerful feet that end in sharp, sickle-shaped talons, which they use to grasp prey — and fight. When bald eagles battle, they circle each other in the air, swooping higher to try to gain an advantage over their opponent, Katzner said.

The upper bird zooms down with its talons extended, while the lower bird flips its talons up, Katzner explained.

Like other raptors, eagle feet close through a ratcheting mechanism, which enables them to tightly grasp a struggling snake or rabbit. But once an eagle closes its claws, it can have a hard time opening them — and that is how the eagles can become stuck together.

"They get excited and scared and their feet start tensing up and they can't release," Katzner said. Then they come crashing down.

"Sometimes one bird is seriously injured and sometimes they're just stunned," he said.


Lisa Smith, executive director of the Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, a bird rescue and rehabilitation organization in Newark, Del., said about 40-50 injured bald eagles are brought to her facility each year, including several that have been hurt in territory battles.

Most of those eagles suffer minor injuries, although some are blinded or develop serious infections from their wounds, she said.

Sometimes, the birds are so focused on their struggle that they don't realize they've landed in a parking lot — or in a tree above a house.

"One says, 'I'm not letting go,' and the other says, 'I'm not letting go,'" Brinker said. "All of a sudden, this human comes up and they say, 'Uh oh, I have to get out of here.'"

Hoagberg, the Prince George's County resident who spotted the bald eagles last month, said she was afraid they would kill each other. The retired psychiatrist sees many birds from her home on a nature reserve near the Potomac River, but was startled to see the massive birds hanging upside down.

After calling a national resources hotline and consulting an animal rescue service, Hoagberg and her husband tried to scare the birds apart by making loud noises.


First they shouted; that didn't work.

Then a neighbor revved a chain saw under the tree. The birds stayed put.

Finally, another neighbor fired a shotgun into a ditch. One eagle flew off. A second shotgun blast convinced the second to fly away.

The eagles in the yard of the Longfellows' home in Dunkirk also needed to be persuaded to give up their fight. The couple first heard strange shrieking at 3 a.m. and Sam Longfellow spotted the birds four hours later.

The birds were about 30 feet off the ground, dangling from a branch by their interlocked talons.

A crowd gathered in the yard of the Longfellows—the couple's youngest two children, neighbors, friends. One friend, Denise Nutwell, took photos with her long lens, capturing the eagles' stern faces.


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The Longfellows called county officials, and soon a state natural resources officer and volunteer animal rescuers David and Shannon Edwards arrived from St. Mary's County.

Around 11 a.m., as the group waited for a ladder truck from the nearby volunteer fire company, David Edwards walked closer to the tree.

There was a rustle of wings. And then, eight hours after their first angry squawks, the birds flew apart. One soared off toward a neighboring farm; the other headed in another direction. They appeared unharmed.

Jaime Longfellow felt a swell of pride at the sight, she wrote in a follow-up email to The Baltimore Sun. She was struck by the birds' "strength, independence and beauty."

"This great bird is the perfect symbol to represent Americans and this beautiful country we are blessed to live in."