Eagles versus Vultures

Trapping vultures is hard. It takes almost as much patience as watching vultures. After our amazing day of two birds at once, we had three days of nothing. We caught one Tawny eagle, which was interesting, but not quite what we were going for. The Tawny managed to snag itself on one of the nooses just as ten vultures were feasting around it – what are the odds? We quickly drove up to grab it. I carefully secured both feet before removing the noose. Wilson, who up until this point had only ever handled vultures, went to secure the head. He sort of pinned the bird to the ground. I quickly explained that with this bird we really didn’t need to worry about that end.

You see when it comes to defense vultures and eagles are polar opposites. Vultures use their beaks – designed to quickly rip bone from flesh and with a long snake-like neck that is difficult to control – these are formidable weapons. The vulture’s talons on the other hand are incredibly blunt. All that walking around on the ground and they have basically filed their nails down. The talons are still impressively large, but they aren’t really sharp, so you don’t have to worry about them grabbing onto you with their feet. Alternatively the talons on an eagle are not only sharp, they are also strong. Designed to kill, crush, and carry small prey, the talons can do some serious damage in just one grab. Having been “taloned” by a red tailed hawk that we were trying to rehabilitate at the Cornell Wildlife Center, I can tell you it isn’t fun. The talons go right into your skin like tiny razor blades and can go all the way through your arm if you are particularly unlucky. In my case, the talons went in and out quickly which was fortunate as occasionally the birds can hold on.

In any case, what this all means is the handling techniques for vultures and eagles are totally different. With a vulture we carefully secure the head first and foremost and can worry about the feet later. With an eagle, you want to have a good hold of the talons before you do anything else. Then (as was to Wilson’s amazement) you can calmly hold the bird against your chest (feet secured with one hand) and occasionally can even have the beak of the bird resting against your arm with no trouble.

An eagle release is also a bit more dramatic as you can actually toss the bird up and let it take flight.

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