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Fishermen rescue eagles from certain death

--- Fishermen unhook eagles instead of hooking fish

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published July 5, 2007, 1:26 p.m.)


The most memorable part of a fly-in Canadian fishing trip for Walworth's Bob Hansen and his son, Mike, wasn't catching a trophy walleye or northern pike.

It was rescuing two bald eagles from nearly certain death.

In the middle of Kabinakagami Lake, about 75 miles north of Wawa, Ontario, Bob, Mike and fishing guide Ron Kaye, were seeking walleyes the afternoon of June 15.

In the distance, they heard a loud splash, something quite common in a land where fish jump and loons and ducks play on the water.

The trio didn't think much of it until they started to head to a new fishing location about a half-hour later. That's when they saw them-two adult bald eagles struggling in the water.

"We couldn't figure out what was wrong," Bob said. "As we came closer, they didn't seem antsy or nervous.

"We took (Kaye's) fishing net and lifted up the one wing. We could see their talons were locked together."

It was an odd site, seeing two high-flying birds of prey, with their seven- to eight-foot wingspans, flopping on the surface.

"There were a couple of loons there giving them raspberries. They were really upset (the eagles) were in the water," Bob said of two loons constantly calling out that danger was nearby. "There are not too many animals up there that like eagles. They like to eat anything and everything."

Bob put the landing net over the head of the closer eagle while Kaye put on his leather workman's gloves and reached for the razor-sharp talons, which looked about the size of a man's hand, Bob said. Mike, of Mansfield, Ill., snapped a few photos and watched from the other side of the boat.

Kaye was able to pry one set of the birds' toes apart with his hands, but needed his pliers to wedge the other two apart, Bob said.

Once free, the two birds separated and swam away from each other toward shore.

"Just talking to anybody, nobody knew eagles could swim, but they can. They're funny looking, but they can. They flop," Bob said, demonstrating how the eagles flopped their wings as a swimmer does the butterfly stroke.

They kept a close eye on both and followed the smaller of the two birds to land.

"We saw them get up on higher ground, then a little higher ground. We never did see them take off, but they were OK," Bob said.

Both birds were exhausted and presumably needed to dry out and rest before flying again, Bob said.

Bill Volkert, a wildlife educator and naturalist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, thought the eagles were either fighting or performing a mating ritual in midair.

Because of the timing of the incident, it was more likely the birds were fighting, said Volkert, who has studied birds for 30 years.

In a mating ritual, the birds display courtship by locking their talons in midair and tumbling toward the ground, releasing at the last second to soar skyward again, Volkert said. It's odd they become locked in a courtship because both birds know when to release.

It is also rare, but not unheard of, for eagles to perform the ritual several months after the mating season, Volkert added.

"As long as they were stressed like this and locked, it would take a conscious action for them to back off and release and open that grip," Volkert said. "With the timing of the year and the grip held right into the water, there seems to be a tension between them rather than a pair bonding."

If there was tension between the birds, it wasn't relevant when humans were nearby, Bob said.

"I was just amazed at how calm they were," Bob said. "I don't know why, but they were. They were watching us close with their eyes.

"Their beaks are huge. You wouldn't want to tangle with one. They'd rip you to shreds.

"We were more concerned with getting them free."

The rescue probably saved the two birds from drowning, but it was very risky, Volkert said.

"It was definitely a bold move," Volkert said. "They did the right thing and it's a good thing they were able to help (the eagles) in a way that didn't cause themselves any harm."

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