Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Eaglet Growth and Development: Week Two

D24 and D25: 04/04/16
D24 and D25: 04/12/16

D24 is 15 days old today, while D25 turns 13 days old. The week-old difference between these two photos is striking. In their second week of development, the eaglets grew larger, gaining roughly two pounds between April 4th and April 12th. They experienced rapid growth in features like beaks, culmens, and footpads, replaced their white natal down with thicker grey thermal down, and began exploring the nest. Although they aren't yet standing on their toes, they are able to sit up - way up! - for feeding and shuffle around on their metatarsi.  Their eyes are wide open and fit more comfortably in their eyesockets, features like brow ridges are beginning to appear, and their legs and footpads are yellow, not pink. 

Gary Bortolotti wrote that bald eagles might gain more weight per day than any other north American bird, although the majority of their weight gain occurs within the first 30-40 days. This rapid weight growth is fueled by their nutrient-rich diet of meat. Over the past week or so, we watched the eaglets chow down on fish, roe (fish eggs), venison (aborted fetal deer), rabbit, squirrel, something that might have been a muskrat, waterfowl, and several other birds. D24 became proficient enough at shooting poop to christen the Poopcasso tree on April 5th, while both eaglets got in plenty of tussling and bonking play, alternately hitting, submitting, and quitting to cuddle in the nest cup, grow, and wait for more food to arrive.

Watchers have been asking why the Fort St. Vrain eaglets began wandering the nest so much earlier than the Decorah eaglets. While we don't know for sure, we suspect that temperature played an important role. Fort St. Vrain experienced unusually warm temperatures in late March and early April, and the leaves hadn't unfurled to provide shade for the nest. Cold is a challenge to eaglets under 10-15 days of age, but so is heat! With little ability to control body temperature and no way to lose heat except by panting, the eaglets did their best to retire to what little shade tree limbs and the nest itself offered. Once in the shade, they sprawled out as much as they could. Mom did her best to provide shade for the eaglets, moving from one to another and standing between them and the sun.  As alarming as it was to viewers, Mom's ploy worked and we didn't see quite as much wandering, at least for a few days, after the weather cooled down. 

In the week to come, we can expect (continued) rapid growth in footpads, talons, and legs. Beak growth will rapidly slow as the eaglets' beaks approach adult size and we may see dark juvenile feathers start to sprout from their grey down. Overall weight and height gain will continue, most  likely reaching their steepest curves some time this week. By the end of the week, our little bobbleheads at Decorah and Fort St. Vrain will be almost a foot tall, while the eggs at Decorah North should begin hatching! 

Watchers have observed that different nests seem to have different 'parenting' styles: i.e., Dad may be more present at one nest than another, food may come in more or less regularly, and eaglets might spend more time alone. Many things influence nest life, including weather, temperature, food availability, predators, and the presence of other adult, sub-adult, and juvenile bald eagles. While eaglet growth and development occurs along a fairly predictable trajectory, local conditions can change the timing of events - something we've seen in Decorah, Fort St. Vrain, and the year we watched Eagle Valley. We are looking forward to hatch at Decorah North!

The general stages of eagle development are:

Stage 1 - Structural growth. In their first thirty-five to forty days of life, eagles grow very rapidly, gaining weight and building bones, muscles, tissue, and features like tarsi, footpads, toes, and claws. This phase of development slows down about halfway through an eaglet's time in the nest, even though individual features might continue some level of growth.

Stage 2 - Feather and flight-related growth. Eagles grow four sets of feathers - natal down inside the egg, thermal down, juvenile feathers, and adult feathers. Thermal down starts growing at about ten days, juvenile deck feathers at about 20-23 days and juvenile flight feathers at about 27 days, but feather growth doesn't overtake structural growth until thirty-five to forty days after hatch. Flight muscles also begin growing as eaglets wingercize, flap, hover, and eventually branch and fledge.

Stage 3 - Neurological Coordination. Eagle watchers know how ungainly eaglets can seem! As they grow, they become more adept at controlling beaks, legs, wings, and feet. They learn to stand on their own feet, tear food, self-feed, and flap their wings, going from cute but clumsy clown clompers to graceful young eaglets poised at the edge of fledge.

I'm not sure how familiar many of you are with the cortical homunculus, an image-based tool that maps tactility. We discussed it very briefly in this blog and I'll include links below. While useful and extremely cool, most cortical homunculii are static - that is, they reflect just one phase (usually adult) of an organism's life. But an eaglet's cortical homunculus will differ from an adult's as body parts and associated skills are gained and neural pathways developed. Our eaglets' brains and bodies are rapidly growing and changing as they gain the skills they need for life outside the egg! I'd tend to think that visual acuity suddenly 'lit up' this week, leading changes in coordination as the eaglets began sitting up and moving around.

Things that helped me write this blog, with a few considerations:


e3forpresident said...

ty for great info, but i thought i read somewhere that the pin feathers start from the pores of the natal down, so thermal down and pin feathers grow from diff pores?

Dianne said...

Thank you Amy!