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This Week’s Creature Feature: Love Birds

Courtship is in the air for bald eagles

      Winter is the time that American bald eagles in Maryland start courting and making nests to raise a new family. The courtship period can be very dramatic. I have witnessed the drama only twice.
     Several years ago in late December, while driving back to Annapolis from Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge, I could hear two eagles screaming at each other. When I finally located them, they were a couple hundred feet in the air and flying at one another. As they converged, they locked their talons and stopped flapping but left their wings open. This action caused them to spin with increasing speed as they fell toward the ground. I was certain they were about to crash into a farmer’s field.
      At the last second, they released their mutual grip, flying apart. Immediately they started the screaming again and climbed into the sky to repeat the earth-tumbling act. Dramatic as it is, this falling-out-of-the-sky courtship seldom results in a crash into the ground. 
      In another courtship ritual, the male presents food to his mate. These presentations are frequently over the top. Around a favorite eagle perch, the ground can be littered with the excess offerings, usually fish. In the corner of a woodlot at Chesapeake Environmental Center, the pine-needle floor of the forest is strewn with the fishy remains of loving tributes to a female eagle.
     Before courtship, eagles make nests, plural. They have a primary nest or aerie that they use plus several unused decoy nests. Why? Perhaps the unused nests ward off other nesting eagles, are practice nests or alternative sites if the main nest fails. The eagles maintain and repair the decoy nests.
      Interestingly, the secondary nests are sometimes used by great horned owls, which also nest in the winter.
      The main nests can be massive. The largest recorded bald eagle nest, located in St. Petersburg, Florida, was 10 feet in diameter and 20 feet deep, weighing almost three tons. This past fall, weight of a large nest at Blackwater National Wildlife refuge caused the supporting tree to collapse.   
      After the nest-making and courtship, one to three eggs are laid in January or February, then continuously guarded mostly but not exclusively by the female. The male brings her food and gives a rest. 
      The eggs hatch in about 35 days. 
      American bald eagles generally mate for life. But when a mate disappears, replacements are usually found. The male of a famous eagle couple that lived near the George Washington Bridge was injured. During his rehab period, a new younger male took his place. When the older male was released and tried to return to the nest, he was rejected by the female. The replacement male turned into a good father.