A video of a golden eagle attempting to steal a small child captured the imagination of the Internet today. Though the YouTube video’s creators later admitted it was a hoax, that hasn’t stopped the clip from racking up more than 7 million views. Do eagles really try to snatch up babies?
It’s not common. Many attacks by eagles on children have been reported over the years, but it’s hard to tell how many are accurate. Headlines from the New York Times alone include “Eagle Seizes Little Girl,” “Eagle Tries to Carry Off Scottish Baby From Mother,” “Father Shoots a Bird With Infant in Its Talons,” and “Eagle Carries Off Child.” According to a 1910 story in the Milwaukee Sentinel, a two-month old child was stolen from its cradle by an eagle who then took the infant to its nest at the top of an oak tree. With the help of sharpshooters, they were able to take out the eagle and its partner, but when they finally reached the young Rene Thebedaux, she was killed. In an 1899 story from the Times, an eagle attacked a child in Gurleyville, Conn., but the 4-year-old had a bit more luck. After “the bird succeeded in carrying the child a short distance … it alighted, apparently to take a better grip on the girl’s dress.” The older children beat it away.
Most of these accounts are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and bird experts say they should be taken with a grain of salt. Even the largest North American birds—such as the bald eagle, the golden eagle, and the great horned owl—don’t commonly attack humans, and can’t lift much more than a few pounds. (When large birds are shown attacking wolves and knocking goats off of cliffs in videos, they’re moving or dragging the animals, not lifting them.) Moreover, when these birds swoop in to attack larger prey, they usually kill the animal on the spot, often by crushing it with their claws, and might eat it right there. This is because flying away with a large animal that’s struggling to get free is usually too much of a risk. Other accounts, like that of the 18-month-old Scottish child that disappeared and was found mangled in the mountains, might have been exaggerated, and could have involved other animals. There have been no recent accounts of North American birds flying away with children.
It’s somewhat more common for eagles and owls to attack small dogs and cats, though this is also fairly unusual. In 2002 the Associated Press reported that a 13-pound Dachshund named Ava was recovering after being “snatched by a bald eagle and dropped 40 feet to the ground.” In 1995 a woman said her little poodle, Swazy, was dive-bombed by a large owl, leaving talon marks on its neck and head. Earlier that month a 20-pound poodle-Pekingese mix was reportedly snatched up and killed by a great horned owl. In January of this year, a big-horned owl attacked a 7-pound shih-poo, before his canine friend, a 70-pound boxer, fought the bird off. It was the third time in three days that local police in the area had responded to such an attack. Another dog, a 22-pound havanese, was assaulted by an owl while being walked by its owner.
Our hominid ancestors may have faced more trouble from eagles. The famous fossilized skull of a 3-year-old Australopithecus africanus, known as the Taung Child, was found in an apparent bird’s nest and is thought to have been killed by an African eagle or other large bird of prey. Even today, harpy eagles, which are among the largest in the world, like to prey on primates in South and Central America. In Southeast Asia the giant Philippine Eagle is commonly known as the monkey-eating eagle, after one of its favorite foods. As some of the strongest evidence of primates’ long struggle with eagles, the Smithsonian points out that monkeys have distinct calls to alert their fellows of different predators, and one is thought to mean, roughly, “oh crap, eagle.”
Thanks to Tim Gallagher of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Living Bird magazine and Julia Ponder of the Raptor Center of the University of Minnesota.
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