Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What is going on at the Decorah North Nest?

What is going on at Decorah North? The oldest eaglet, DN1, is displaying far more aggression than we are used to towards its siblings. It is upsetting to human watchers, especially since little DN3 takes much of DN1's biting, yanking, and twisting. However, we have also seen DN1 and even DN3 attack DN2. In most cases, the aggressive behavior ceases once the target submits, but we have seen biting and bonking continue past submission at least twice.

Why is this happening?
We don't know. Food certainly seems to be part of the puzzle, since we've often seen the eaglets act aggressively towards one another as they establish a feeding-related pecking order. However, we've also seen aggression break out in circumstances seemingly unrelated to food. For example, DN3 attacked DN2 at around 2pm this afternoon, giving it multiple bites, yanks and twists before DN2 submitted. The eaglets had all been fed well earlier today, so why the aggression? Perhaps differences in age and size also contribute to aggression. I would tend to believe that aggressive behavior is hard to stop once it starts, and I'm very curious whether we will see the drop-off in aggression here that we have seen in Decorah.

While siblicide is rare, aggressive behavior is common. It ranges from the relatively mild aggression seen in Decorah and at Fort St. Vrain to the biting, twisting, and yanking seen at Decorah North, Southwest Florida, and several other nests. I think this looks odd and frightening at least in part because Decorah has tended to lack extreme aggression. But Decorah and Fort St. Vrain could very well be outliers when it comes to eagle behavior. At this point, only the eagles know for sure.

Is DN3 growing normally?
It is very tough to tell with nothing but the two 'Cropzillas' to compare it to. DN3 is growing in thermal down to replace natal down, has gotten larger relative to the other two (seemingly overnight!), and is growing footpads. What we've been able to see of its beak has indicated a fairly regular size and shape in accordance with eaglet growth curves, and its talons are appropriately changing to black.

DN3 is just moving into the steepest part of its growth curve. The next five to seven days will give us a look at whether or not it is growing normally. We'll also look for developmental changes like nest wandering, attempting to stand, and tracking Mom and Dad outside the nest. DN3 has already been observed doing some of those things on warm days and we should see them more often as its thermal down grows in.

Is DN2 growing normally?
Yes, DN2 is growing and behaving normally.

Will DN3 survive?
DN3 is strong, gets fed, participates in nest aggression, and submits appropriately. The eaglets tend to fight with their beaks instead of their talons and, while the aggression looks frightening, DN3 hasn't been badly injured. It is rapidly growing in thermal down, which will help protect it from cold weather and aid nest exploration. Fighting is very hard to watch, but generally rare when one compares the time spent fighting with the time spent laying around the nest and eating.

There are no guarantees, but siblicide is uncommon and DN3 is much stronger than it seems. It often comes back with its own beaking, displaying its own fierceness, or can be seen afterward cuddling up to a former aggressor. We are hopeful it will survive and even thrive as it grows...but again, there are no guarantees with wildlife.

Will you intervene?
Absolutely not. We might consider interfering if the situation were human-caused, but these behaviors are completely normal from an eagle perspective. If we rescued every eaglet we were concerned about, there would be no wild eaglets left to watch. It is very important to keep eaglet behavior in perspective. For the most part, the parents have acted according to our expectations: feeding, interacting, brooding, and in general caring for their family. While the eaglets fight with one another, they spend more time cuddling, eating, and sleeping. While the fighting is upsetting to watchers, none of it is out of line or outside the parameters of normal eagle behavior.

In summary, the worst may happen but we are not giving up on DN3. The next five to seven days will tell us a lot more about its growth. It looks like we are starting to get pinfeathers on DN1, which means its growth will start slowing as feathers take over. While we have never seen this level of aggressive interaction in Decorah, eagles have survived it at other nests. We remain hopeful.

Kay from SOAR also provided some feedback after she was approached about the situation. She agrees that the situation "looks" terrible but that at this developmental stage of the eaglets they don't have a huge amount of strength in their beak.  Right now, those beaks are something like pointy salad tongs. Hopefully all three eaglets will grow well and this will not be a concern for much longer.