Eaglets, getting ready to fly!

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Eaglets hatch after 35 days of incubation and are in the nest for 10-12 weeks before they fledge or take their first flight. Often, the fledgling process is gradual, where the birds may branch, leaving the actual nest but not the tree, and take another few days or perhaps a week to actually fly away from the nest tree. Then, they return after they calm down and realize that wasn’t so bad, and was actually fun! Photo by DON BARTLING

I have been fortunate to observe some baby eaglets since they stood up in their huge eagle nest. I first saw the eaglets March 8 when they poked their wobbly heads up this spring. The mother and father had worked very hard in making the nest by the Kootenai River in February. Now they are 13-14 week old and almost ready to take their first flight.

Baby eaglets come into the world totally helpless. They cannot hold their head up; their vision is limited; their legs are too weak to hold their weight. Bald eagles are altricial, which means they must rely 100 percent on their parents to protect them and care for them.

After hatching, the eaglet will dry off and fluff up to a downy gray. Food will be offered to the eaglet by the parent, who shreds meat off fish or whatever is available. Tiny pieces will be offered again and again as the eaglet struggles to hold his wobbly head still long enough to take the food. In a short time, the eaglet becomes stronger and his eating skills and coordination develop quickly.

An eaglet has a crop — a storage area — below its chin. Food goes into the crop and is then digested as needed. When the crop is “full” you can see it bulging out. This crop is actually part of the esophagus where food is stored and softened. The crop regulates the flow of food through the digestive tract.

The eaglets grow rapidly — they add about a half pound to a pound of body weight every week until they are about 9-10 weeks old, depending on if the eaglet is a male or female. Females are always larger. At about two weeks, it is possible for them to hold their heads up for feeding. When an eaglet is three weeks old they are a foot high and their feet and beaks are very nearly adult size. When they are four weeks old the eaglets are covered in a secondary coat of gray down and about six weeks the young birds are able to stand and tear their own food.

At about 3-6 weeks, black juvenile feathers will begin to grow in. While downy feathers are excellent insulators, they are useless and must be replaced with juvenile feathers before an eaglet can take its first flight, some 10 to 14 weeks after hatching.

When they are about six weeks old the eaglets are nearly as large as their parents. The appetites’ of the eaglets is at its greatest at about 8 weeks. The parents will hunt almost continuous to feed them; meanwhile at the nest the eaglets are beginning to stretch their wings in response to gusts of wind and they may even hover for short periods. The eaglets grow stronger and about 9-10 weeks they begin branching, this is a precursor to fledging. The eaglets around 10-14 weeks will fledge, or fly away from the nest.

Once the eaglets have fledged they may remain around the nest for four or five weeks, taking short flights while their primary feathers grow and strengthen. Their parents will still provide all of their food. The juvenile fledglings, with the exception of their color, look similar to their parents, but are nothing like them in behavior. The juveniles now have to learn to hunt, and they only have what’s left of summer to learn. After that, they’re on their own. The first winter is the most dangerous and difficult part of an eagle’s life.

Enjoy Boundary County and all of its beauty and wildlife!

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