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UK’s biggest bird of prey shows unprecedented behaviour caring for injured offspring

UK’s biggest bird of prey shows unprecedented behaviour caring for injured offspring
  • One-year-old eagle that was injured as a chick is still being cared for by parents  
  • Unprecedented behaviour astonishes and delights White–tailed Eagle expert, offering surprising new insights to the caring side of one of Scotland’s most iconic birds 
  • The adult pair have focused on caring for the juvenile rather than breed this year 

A pair of White-tailed Eagles on the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland have amazed experts by continuing to care for their injured offspring into its second year of life, going so far as to skip breeding this year to focus on tending to the youngster.   

The chick injured its left wing in July last year after its nest fell to the ground during unseasonably wild weather. Despite its sibling surviving unscathed and fledging not long afterwards, the injured youngster’s story has been a little less smooth.  

As the parents continued to support the chick its wing continued to heal and it finally took to the skies in the autumn, in rather wobbly fashion, with little hope from locals that it would survive the long, harsh winter ahead. But nature has a funny old way of proving us wrong, making this year’s events even more heart-warming. 

This spring RSPB Mull Officer Dave Sexton was onboard the Lady Jayne, run by Mull Charters, for an early season White-tailed Eagle monitoring check, when he witnessed an incredible sight. 

As the boat approached the territory of the pair, the male scavenged a fish from the boat, a normal behaviour. As it flew back to shore, Dave and the skipper heard the unmistakeable sound of a young eagle calling for food, something usually heard in August after eaglets fledge but are still reliant on their parents for food. Then, incredibly, in flew the juvenile White-tailed Eagle, chasing its Dad, and calling for food. The adult male flew to its new nest, followed closely by the youngster, where Dad gave up the fish for the youngster to tuck in to.  

Dave Sexton, RSPB Mull Officer tells us more about this incredible story: “I looked at the skipper in astonishment and we both watched on, unable to quite believe what we’d just witnessed. I was astounded to see this behaviour which was new to me despite four decades of watching White-tailed Eagles in the field. Normally, in the autumn and certainly by the winter, all fledged young have naturally wandered away from their parent’s territory and if they’re still loitering when the next breeding season approaches, they aren’t made very welcome. But here we were watching their chick, now over a year old, still in close company with its parents and still being fed!” 

“For the adults to be tolerating the youngster and tending to it, well into a new breeding season, is unprecedented in my experience. Each day they share fish from Mull Charters with their injured offspring and it seems to show a previously unseen type of White-tailed Eagle behaviour. We normally think of eagles as ‘hard-wired’ and unemotional but clearly there might be another side to their nature. It’ll be fascinating to watch how long this might go on for. Could they tolerate it and feed it for another year…or two? What would happen as the immature starts to reach the sub-adult stage in 3 to 4 years’ time? It’s hard to imagine this scenario continuing by then but who knows? We’re in unchartered territory. 

He added: “For now, we’re just enjoying watching this unusual White-tailed Eagle family doing what they want to do and caring for their youngster which can’t yet fend for itself. I loved White-tailed Eagles before. Now I think I love them just a little bit more”. 

White-tailed Eagles are the UK’s largest bird of prey. Known as ‘flying barn doors’ they have wings that can span up to 8 foot across. They were historically persecuted to extinction here in the early 20th Century, but successful reintroductions mean this spectacular species can now be seen once again, with their greatest numbers in Scotland. They are afforded the highest level of protection as a Schedule 1 species and are a magnificent sight to see along rocky coastlines and lochs near the sea. As their name suggests, they have a distinctive white tail, making them easily recognisable. 

The UK population has now reached more than 150 pairs, with their range gradually expanding from west to east and north into the Cairngorms. In Scotland, Mull is the best place to see White-tailed Eagles with 23 recorded pairs and you can also spot them on Skye, Islay and the Outer Hebrides. In England, the RSPB Arne reserve and Isle of Wight offer great opportunities for sightings.  

Main image: White-tailed Eagle chick by Ashley James