Bald eagle battle leaves lone survivor after birds crash into river

By Gary Ridley |
April 08, 2015

MONTROSE TOWNSHIP, MI — It was a battle to the death in the skies over Montrose Township. The winner was left to dine on a freshly road-killed rabbit.

The loser, well, she wasn’t so lucky.

Two American bald eagles were pulled from the Flint River around 5 p.m. Monday, April 6, near the M-57 bridge in northern Genesee County after a fight between the two birds turned deadly.

Bruce Beatty, a licensed bird of prey rehabilitator, said the two eagles, both females, appeared to have been fighting in mid-air when they locked talons and plummeted into the river.

Onlookers were able to quickly pull one bird from the river. The second bird, however, drowned before it was able to be rescued, Beatty said.

It’s unclear what exactly led to the fight, but Karen Cleveland, a bird biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, said it is typical behavior for the iconic bird, which is the official bird emblem of the United States.

Bald eagles are highly territorial and will go to great lengths to defend their expanses from challengers, Cleveland said. However, the outcome of the resulting eagle turf war can vary in severity based on the reason behind the fight.

An eagle coming into another eagle’s territory looking for a quick meal would likely face its fury, but the fight would likely end before the birds crash into the ground, Cleveland said.

However, the outcome could become much more deadly when the stakes are raised by a younger bird coming in to challenge for mates, established nesting sites and offspring.

Beatty said the surviving bird was taken to the Swartz Creek Veterinary Hospital, where it was treated for a cut on one of its wings. He said the bird is likely around 5 years old and stands about 2 feet tall when perched.

The bird was kept in a flight cage at Beatty’s home as it recovered. Beatty said he fed the eagle mice and road kill while it worked its way back to the wild.

“I don’t like them being exposed much to humans,” Beatty said of the wild birds he takes in.

The bird was released Wednesday, April 8, at Montrose Orchards after authorities spotted nests in the area that weren’t attended to since the fight.

The body of the dead bird, which was roughly 4.5 years old, was gathered and sent to Lansing for evaluation.

Cleveland said the state works to track the cause of death for Bald Eagles, as they are a federally protected species that have undergone extensive studying over the past few decades.

After a necropsy, the body will be sent to the National Eagle Repository, which will disseminate parts of the bird to Native American and Alaska Native tribes that use them for religious and cultural purposes.

Cleveland said the sight of large birds duking it out in mid-air is likely becoming a more familiar occurrence in populated areas around the state as bird of prey populations grow as their habitat slowly returns.

“It’s very exciting,” Cleveland said about the rebounding bird population. “Very cool.”

Bald eagles can be found across the state and their population is growing, Cleveland said.

A survey discovered 750 bald eagle nesting sites throughout the state last year, according to Cleveland. She said that total typically increases by 10-20 sites each year. Sightings of the birds have become increasingly common along the Flint River.

But, for Beatty, he takes pride in knowing that he had a hand in returning even one of the birds back to the wild.

“It gives you goose bumps when it finally takes off,” Beatty said.

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Photo Credit Jake May |