A couple of weeks ago, I walked out on my deck to watch my horses enjoying the mid-morning sun in a pasture just turning to green in the fledgling warmth of spring. After a few minutes, I noticed an enormous bird ponderously descending with a particular landing spot in mind as evidenced by its repeated unbalanced attempts to reach the ground.
I immediately saw that it was a turkey vulture, and I also realized its insistence upon settling in my pasture almost certainly meant there was something dead down there. I walked closer and my found my hypothesis was correct as the scent of skunk wafted toward me on a gentle March breeze. I ventured closer still and saw four little paws extending skyward from a body that revealed itself to be completely stiff as the vulture’s proddings produced no movement.
I decided dead skunk removal was above my pay grade and resolved to let the vultures handle the cleanup process. I turned back to the house, and I had almost reached my deck when something made me turn and look back once more. I was just in time to see a majestic silhouette lifting off, and I realized that this was a new bird and that it was no vulture. As the large figure angled into the air, I glimpsed clearly its snow white tail feathers and head.
I froze, unable to make my legs move as I processed what I had just seen. It appeared that a bald eagle had just made a regal descent into my pasture to sample the available fare, which happened to be deceased skunk.
Years ago, I might have dismissed this thought and chalked it up to a trick of the light. However, I live close enough to Berry College, with its well-known establishment of bald eagles, that I believed my eyes.
I got in touch with Dr. Renee Carleton, a professor of biology at Berry and the scientific advisor for the college’s eagle cam, and she was excited to hear about the sighting. She said the other off-campus sightings she’s heard about had come from an area on the other side of the county.
She said, since it’s nesting season, the bird might have been feeding eaglets and that it’s not uncommon for eagle parents to take carrion back to the nest. The nest could have been located quite some distance from my property, however, as bald eagles like to settle near large bodies of water. Our closest water is John’s Creek, which Carleton said is likely too small to attract these birds. Male and female eagles, nearly indistinguishable from one another in appearance except for the fact that females are usually larger, collaborate to feed their young, she explained. While eaglets are tiny, the pair takes turns watching the nest and hunting, and later, when the babies are bigger and need more sustenance, they hunt at the same time.
The first bald eagle pair appeared on Berry College campus in 2012, Carleton said. Their first eaglets hatched in early 2013 with 14 total having hatched to date. The Berry nest is helping to expand the population in Georgia, she said. With the man-made reservoirs throughout Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama, there’s plenty of water for fishing for a bird that would normally inhabit coastlines.
I asked how landowners can be friendly to bald eagles. Carleton said one key thing is to stay away from rodent poisons and toxic weedkillers. She said it’s especially important that herbicides not reach nearby bodies of water and contaminate eagles’ food sources. She also advised that the birds don’t usually like a lot of activity or to know humans are watching them.
“The best thing to do is to give them distance,” she said.
She also mentioned that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is asking the public to report sightings on georgiawildlife.com. I downloaded the form, and it looked pretty easy to fill out.
This was a typical wildlife sighting on the Crumbly property: completely unexpected and with a bent toward the ridiculous, given the type of carrion involved. I was thrilled, though, to get to witness what many people consider North America’s most majestic bird on my own property, even if it took a dead skunk to get it there.
I was also taken with Carleton’s obvious delight at hearing about this sighting, and I hope some of you are able to see these incredible birds in person. It was, as Carleton suggested, a moving experience not soon to be forgotten.