June 28, 2023: Eaglet Care After Fledge

We’re getting a lot of questions about eaglet care post-fledge. Will HM and HD continue to take care of DH2? How will she learn to hunt for herself? When will she disperse? Here’s what we know:

Post-fledgulation: It’s time for outdoor school!

HD and HM will continue to provide food for DH2. Her rudimentary flight skills will improve rapidly as she refines her landing technique, meets her parents on feeding perches, soars high above the valley, and chases her parents – food tag, you’re it! With HD and HM’s support, she’ll learn to navigate her surroundings, find and catch prey, and refine her eagle table manners even further. Foraging skills are very important, but an eagle also has to keep its food from the piratical advances of other eagles.

We all love a waterpark!

Especially in hot weather, the eagle family might be found in deep shade down by Trout Creek. We’ve seen eaglets taking fish out of the creek by hopping and swimming after them in shallow water and watched the entire family escape the heat on shallow gravel bars. If you see the family down by Trout Creek or anywhere else, be sure to give them plenty of space. DH2 needs all the outdoor school she can get!

Dispersal is (usually) a process

Back in 2011, eagle D1 dispersed on August 14 on an epic journey north. Prior to her northern journey, she hadn’t ever traveled more than a mile from N1. But D1 was a real outlier! Brett and Ryan’s transmitter studies show that our eagles usually widen their explorations slowly and don’t travel more than a mile from the nest during their first post-fledge month. They’ve got a lot to learn, after all – how to fly, how to land, how to catch food, how to keep food, and how to navigate! Their world, once restricted to one nest in one tree, has expanded to infinity – and beyond! – assuming a distance of 89 miles to the horizon at one mile high.

Female eagles D25 and D27 had a more typical dispersal pattern. After their first month on the wing, they began taking short three-to-five mile loops around the area, flying out and back as they explored their world. D25’s first big trip was five miles away from the hatchery, 44 days after fledge, while D27’s was 24 miles, 56 days after fledge. We won’t always see DH2, but she’ll probably be in or around the hatchery for the next month or so, and her first long trips will probably be between three to five miles away from the nest.

Eagle college!

Outdoor school gets fledglings ready for Eagle College, aka life after dispersal. During the first month after fledge, eagle parents provide a lot of support to their young. But that support diminishes as the adults enter gonadal senescence and their weakest point of attachment to their nest and territory, while young eagles start to feel the fishhook pull of dispersal. Before dispersal, DH2 learned from her parents. After dispersal, she’ll learn from other eagles: cohorts, subadults, and even adults who didn’t breed, have left their territories, or who will tolerate a juvenile in their territories.

Human watchers sometimes feel sad for our eagle families. But I think it could feel more like a grand adventure to the eaglets. The wide world awaits them: creeks, rivers, and forests to explore; other eagles to chase, roost with, steal food from, and play with; endless skies to soar as the ground slides beneath their wings. DH2 might join her cohorts on the Mississippi Flyway, soar with peregrine falcons and many other birds over the broad expanse of Lake Pepin, or explore Wisconsin’s beautiful lake country. Whatever happens, know that HD, HM, and DH2’s own instincts have prepared her for survival.

What can I do to help eagles?

There is no doubt that fledge and dispersal are difficult and sometimes dangerous events. All of us want to help or take care of our fledglings, but we can’t interfere or stop a process that all wild birds have to go through on their way to adulthood. But here are three things we can do to help eagles and many other creatures!

  • Make sure they have the habitat they need to support every phase of their lives, including places to breed, feed young, fledge into, disperse from, migrate through, and winter and summer.
  • Avoid rodenticides, pesticides, and herbicides. Rodenticides especially are a threat to raptors. Looking to beautify your yard or neighborhood? Consider planting flowers, grasses, and bushes that help pollinators and provide food and habitat for birds, animals, and insects. Here’s a wonderful essay on the benefits of planting and managing a sanctuary yard: https://bit.ly/3NBIQrs.
  • Use lead-free ammo and fishing tackle. This helps bald eagles and many other birds, including swans and loons.

Helen McDonald writes of falcons: Are falcons paradigms of wildness and freedom? Vermin? Sacred objects? A commercially valuable wildlife resource? Or untouchable and charismatic icons of threatened nature? The same questions can be asked of our eagles. But however we think of them, they lives are ultimately their own. We look forward to fledge and dispersal and wish DH2 the very best of luck as she begins her new adventure!