The Saratoga Sun -

The Eagle Has Landed (and that's the problem)


A fellow employee came into the office last week bearing a package – the sad body of a recently deceased eagle. Not the type of “gift” one might want to receive during the holidays (or ever). The eagle had been struck and killed by a vehicle while feeding on the carcass of another victim of a collision with traffic. While the first fatality might not have been reasonably prevented (suicidal deer or bunnies running into the road, for instance), that of the eagle probably could have been.

By most accounts, eagles are graceful, elegant denizens of blue skies and majestic old trees. But they are heavy-bodied with a long wingspan, which makes ground-based take-offs (V-E-R-Y) slow. Think B-17 bomber: the ‘Flying Fortress’. With powerful legs, the eagle don’t need a long runway but once airborne, and very much like a bomber, it takes them considerable distance and time to gain altitude. Those long wings don’t beat very rapidly, certainly not at the same rate of the ravens and magpies that also snack on roadside venison. It can take several minutes for an eagle to rise above the level of a vehicle, especially large trucks.

Perhaps you have seen this yourself? You spot a cluster of birds around a distinctive, slightly snow-covered hairy lump a few yards from the edge of the highway. If you’re lucky, there’s an eagle there and he/she stays put – you get a close-up of a nifty bird and his dining continues uninterrupted. But more often, the eagle departs as your vehicle approaches. Depending on wind direction and the presence, or absence, of vegetation, the eagle might head away from the road. Other times, it ends up paralleling, or worse, trying to cross the highway ahead of you. If it hasn’t gained enough height to clear, the result is almost certain death to the bird, damage to the car or truck, and often injury, sometimes death to the vehicle’s occupants. Having one strike a windshield at 65 mph is like smashing it with a 12-pound rock.

To avoid this unhappy ending, each of us can do a little to make big difference. First, knowing that eagles find winter road kill almost irresistible, drivers can slow as soon we spot a carcass near a road. Take a quick look at the pile – is an eagle present? If so, slow even more, anticipating the eagle will launch and that its ascent will take time. Expect the eagle to cross in front of you – is there oncoming traffic? Where will it, and you, go? Slowing for an eagle will add a few extra seconds to your trip and years to the life of an eagle.

Secondly, if it is safe to do so, move road kill – yours or somebody else’s – “way off” the road. The further, the better. Munchers of mushed meat are doing their part by recycling the dead animal’s flesh and bone as fast they can. How unfortunate for some of them to also die while simply trying to live. No need for these to become piles of the unwary.

Most residents of the United States will never see a wild eagle. Some will see a few, and then, probably not both species. Many of those folks probably consider us truly fortunate to live where bald and golden eagles are plentiful. Whether you admire them as symbols of our country or just attractive, powerful raptors, caring for them only requires being a bit more careful.


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