Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The misunderstood other "eagle"

A "bald-headed eagle," aka turkey vulture, suns itself near camp

The real bald eagle is a symbol of strength. Photo by Steve Ozark
Many years ago an Ojibwe elder, Jim Paishk, worked at camp as a guide and helper and would share his knowledge, humour and wisdom about the Boreal Forest and its creatures.
The two largest birds of the northern sky, pictured above, were what he called "the eagle" and the "bald-headed eagle."
"The eagle" was what we all know as the bald eagle. It is the national symbol of the United States and is also honoured by the Ojibwe who use its feathers for spiritual and ceremonial purposes.
"The bald-headed eagle," as Jim called it, is what we know as the turkey vulture, also sometimes called a buzzard. It doesn't share its cousin's lofty position when it comes to human esteem and I'm not sure why.
The vulture eats carrion or dead creatures, that's true, but so does the noble eagle. In fact given a choice a bald eagle always prefers the meal that isn't trying to get away. However, if there's nothing dead at hand, the eagle will resort to catching its own live prey, almost always a fish. If it was a duck people would contemptuously refer to it as a "fish duck," not one of the preferred "puddle ducks." But no one sneers at the eagle as the "fish hawk," maybe because there is one of those already, the osprey which only hunts fish, live fish.
About as handsome as a turkey
Perhaps it's the lack of head covering that gives the vulture its low place on everybody's bird list. Yet another bird, the wild turkey, has basically the same hair style, and it gets great reviews.
There is at least one creature however, who is best friends with the vulture and that is the popular bald eagle. I think ravens and crows appreciate the vulture just as much. The reason is the vulture is the only bird with an incredible sense of smell. It can detect the odour of a dead animal or fish, from thousands of feet away. It leads all the carrion-eating birds to the site, even if it is obscured by trees and other vegetation. You could say it is the bloodhound of the bird set.
If you watch us dump fish guts on the rocky island at camp each night you will see that the nasty-tempered eagles gathered there always tolerate their bald-headed cousins. They didn't need them to find the fish gut island, of course, but the rest of the time they are pretty handy friends to have around.
Bald eagles, vultures and even one raven share the pickings at the rocky island
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