Another reason to keep cats indoors: hungry eagles

(Windigo Images)

When I started as a naturalist in the Twin Cities, I presented programs to the public using live birds of prey. Among the many facts we shared about the natural history of eagles, hawks, owls and falcons was the unfair persecution birds of prey faced for being thieves of lambs, chickens, and ducks.

I always learned that birds of prey weren’t the terrible scourge we thought they were; chances were they foraging on something already killed by a coyote, not killing the chickens themselves. I have bird books from the early 1900s that recount the blood thirst of Cooper’s hawks and goshawks. One book even suggests that the best thing to do when you see a peregrine falcon is to fill it with lead. It was a massive public relations problem for raptors.

Birds of prey numbers plummeted in the 20th Century, then gradually came back as we gave them space to live, eliminated the pesticide DDT, and stopped shooting every one we saw. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons made a strong comeback and are no longer considered federally endangered.

Much to my personal delight, we have seen a surge of raptors nesting in metro areas. It’s rare a day where I do not see red-tailed hawks or bald eagles on my commute to work from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. Bald eagles are moving deeper into our urban jungle and nesting in city yards along the Mississippi River. One bald eagle nest is in downtown Minneapolis, right next to the 35W Bridge, over a very busy bike and pedestrian trail and luxury condos.

As birds of prey move into urban areas, we continue to let cats roam outdoors and have even added chickens to our backyards. Rabbits are now the third most popular pet in the United States, and while most people keep their rabbits indoors, some will let them wander in fenced yards under supervision. Raptors are noticing all of these pets and urban farms.

In some of the early days of bald eagle nest cameras, the cameras would periodically go dark. I started hearing rumors from those involved that when cameras went dark it wasn’t always because online traffic overloaded the system. Sometimes it was because an eagle had returned to a nest with a cat, and they didn’t want to deal with the upset cat people in the comments.

Then, in 2016, a bald eagle nest cam in Pennsylvania didn’t shut off the camera. An adult brought a young dead cat to the nest and the other adult did what they do – ripped it up and fed it to the chicks. Some suggested that the eagle could have scavenged a road kill cat and maybe it did. But the cat looked small enough for an eagle to kill.

Even more recently, an adult bald eagle was seen in Virginia feeding on a full-grown house cat outside of an auto parts store. Many gathered to watch and film the eagle as it consumed the entire feline in 45 minutes. None of the news stories mentioned if the eagle killed the cat or scavenged it after, say, it was hit by a car, but either could be possible.

I’ve long thought that birds of prey mostly will leave pets alone. Sure, pets under 10 pounds are at risk, but a coyote would be the more likely culprit than a bird of prey. But I’m curious to see what the next few years bring. Will there be more videos of eagles with cats, especially as eagles adapt to the city and some people insist on maintaining feral cat colonies?

And eagles aren’t the only ones watching for small pets. Every winter my inbox sees a few emails from friends who keep urban chickens who lose a bird, usually to a goshawk, but they’ve also had red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, and Cooper’s hawks checking out their yards. There was this fascinating article about what a problem bald eagles are on a free-range, organic chicken farm in Georgia. I’m betting that urban eagles will go for the chickens soon, too.

I love birds of prey and I’m happy to have them as neighbors. But if these pets become prey, I wonder if my friends and neighbors will feel the same?

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