2023 RRP Highlights: Shelter from the Storm

We’re looking back on 2023’s favorite things! I picked this one. Although HD is soaking wet and shivering with cold, he carefully folds his body around DH2 to shelter his not-so-little eaglet from the icy slashing storm. DH2 is 38 days old.

Bald eagles go to great lengths to care for their young. They spend months preparing for egg-laying, over a month incubating eggs through sub-zero winter weather, another 70-80 days caring for eaglets in the nest, and still another month supporting fledglings once they finally get their wings. Some of these behaviors are reflexive, some are instinctual, and some are learned. So when is it instinct – an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli – versus reflex – involuntary movements or actions – versus learned behavior – a behavior that an organism develops as a result of experience? It’s a complicated question with very fuzzy boundaries.

Instincts include behavior like copulation, nest-building, brooding, feeding, and flying. These are things that eagles feel compelled to do: behaviors that make human watchers wonder “How do they know they should do that?”

Reflexes are involuntary actions that can’t easily be stopped or controlled: the doctor taps your knee and you jerk, an infant roots when the corner of its mouth is stroked, something touches the center of an eagle’s footpad and it immediately grabs.

Learned behavior is a behavior developed through experience, although the behavior is probably rooted in instinct. Let’s talk about feeding! Feeding is instinctive and prompted by a hatchling’s gape or peck in many species of birds. A hatchling eaglet opens its mouth and/or vocalizes, which prompts a parent to feed it. A baby gull instinctively pecks at a red spot on its mother’s beak, prompting a feeding – a two-step chain of instinctive behaviors! But learning plays a significant role in feeding and eagle parents get better at it as they repeat it. Brooding, feeding, copulation, and flying are all instinctive behaviors. Add experience and learning, and you have skill!

People try to divide the world into neat categories, but instinct, reflex, and learning dovetail in really complex and fuzzy ways. Is an eagle curling its feet near its eggs an instinctive response to a reflex that could crush eggs or eaglets? Is poop shooting reflexive or instinctual? Does a nesting eagle engage in life-long learning when it comes to the instinctive behavior of nest-building? We know that eagles build on instinct and get better at many tasks as they repeat them, but applying our discreet worldview to their entangled world might not be a helpful way to think about them.

Having said that, I see care and dedication in this video – why else would HD stay steady when he’s so clearly miserable? – and I think that’s a great way to think about them! What an amazing eagle Dad and what a wonderful eagle family!