Question: How do Nestlings Learn Hunting and Social Skills?

This was earlier a big question in my mind because in my wilderness observations of nesting eagles the learning seemed to be restricted to what they could see from the nest.  The chicks were always abandoned by 5 - 7 days after fledging with literally no teaching.  The maximal observed learning was the eaglet viewing an adult catching something at a distance and occasionally attacking that adult for the dinner at the delivery of the food or on a nearby beach once the eaglet had fledged.  I never saw adults bring food to the fledglings in the nest or to nearby trees.

In fact when I would see the fledgling attack the adult for the adult's food, we got to saying, "Well tomorrow the chicks will be abandoned."  The adults in my opinion interpret the attack to mean they have done their job and they are moving on.  The fledglings learn to hunt totally on their own.

Of course now, in the urban setting where our cams are, we see the adults bringing food to the nest well after the time the chicks should have fledged -- the 84 day plus or minus a very few. This seems to result in a delayed nestling period.   Then, at some of the cam sites, we even see the adults now bringing food to the nest after the young have made the first flight and encouraging them to come back to the nest.  I never saw anything like this in the wilderness areas.  Four or five days after the fledging the adults were gone -- period!

My interpretation of this difference is that the adults develop a very different relationship with the nest in the urban - suburban setting.  By necessity the nest is very often the feeding platform even during incubation and sometimes during the winter leading up to nesting.  I suspect the reason is simply that in the wilderness setting every tree, every beach rock or stump is a safe perch or feeding location.  Not so in the urban environment where there are few trees and any rock or stump is likely to be closely passed by a runner, a lady pushing a baby carriage and trailing 3 dogs or a car comes speeding by.  The nest tree becomes not just accepted as a secure nesting site but becomes, by default of their being few other trees or safe perches, the safest and constantly reinforced safe site.  This then makes a stronger urban attachment to the site and, with few other safe sites readily available, the nest site is used for more and longer functions. This includes bringing back food after fledging.  The urban environment seems to keep human kids at home longer -- and returning!  Maybe it works the same for eagles.

So to more directly answer your question about the learning by juveniles.  I don't think adult bald eagles have evolved any method of teaching their young to hunt.  The almost total inability of the young to effectively exhibit hunting skills, or hunting success for the first year or so in my experience, suggests the adult eagles' system of teaching the young does not exist!  

I think that the reason that eaglets, when leaving the nest, are larger than when they are adults, is part of this explanation.  The huge big broad wings, with their incredible soaring ability, enables juveniles to cover hundreds of miles a day without expending more than soaring energy suggests to me the eaglets are left to scavenge on their own.  Go forth young man and find something dead!  As the glaciers have retreated and advanced over the years the closeness to early spawning salmon carcasses has evolved a way for 'untaught scavengers' to find food.  The eaglet can cover hundreds of miles a day to find scavengeable food. 

The eaglets' constant aggression over scavenged food, along with constant testing of prey, results in the young eagles eventually developing hunting skills.  The process is not quick.  Hence it takes the bald eagle five years to mature.  If the young eagle could learn the necessary hunting skills in a few weeks, months or even years, I think they would be breeding at an earlier age.  The test of maturity is the ability to feed yourself, your mate and your offspring.  Developing this ability is a long slow process, one with many pitfalls along the way.  A process that takes about 5 years to hone down.

The salmon river shorelines are marvelous places to watch these eagle skills being developed.  I call all this interaction and socialization the time when eagles are learning to be eagles. The constant challenges and attempts to catch birds or other fish, is the process of developing flying skills and ultimately becoming hunters.  For example, I still have never seen, in thousands of attack-hunts on waterfowl, a one or two year old juvenile catch a healthy bird.  Sure they are constantly attacking them, even picking up wounded or dead birds, sometimes taking them from adults, but catching them during the first few years of life is rare.  This requires skills that take a long time to develop.

This suggests to me that the aggressive component is very important, not just in determining nestling survival, fratricide, in times of low food.  But this same bullying technique is the driving force determining survival during the long hard post-fledging period.  The congregation of newly fledged young on the early salmon spawning rivers is where free food is available and where an unlimited opportunity to practice bullying takes place.  Their learning is in part some innate skills then honed down by practice -- by trial and error.  And each of the first few years, as the feathers of the wing are shortening and narrowing, their maneuverability and neuromuscular skills are refined to make the very versatile hunter-scavengers that the adults have to be to raise young.

It seems harsh but it does work.

David Hancock.

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