Vail Daily column: Venturing out of the nest
Vail, CO Colorado
Independence is a precarious thing. And as yellow buses are warming up and grateful moms diligently prepare their offspring for the great leap back to school, students embrace their newfound independence with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The same is true in the natural world as wild mothers of all species prepare to send their fawns, lambs and chicks off into the great blue yonder to fend for themselves. Eagles are no exception, and many are in the process of cutting the apron strings or tail feathers, as their young eaglets leave the nest and embark on their youthful quest for independence.
My mother tells me that she was sad when my sister and I left home for college, but I don’t remember it that way. She seemed pretty happy to me, busy playing racquetball and learning to play bridge. I imagine wildlife, too, must feel some sense of relief as they prepare to shoo their young from their nests, dens and burrows. They have done their job – raising their babies to the point where they can, or should be able to, fend for themselves. Whether they make it or not, the parent’s job is done (of course, things often differ in the human world, but that’s another article).
In our valley, we are fortunate to share our skies with both bald and golden eagles. Mating for life, both eagles build large nests that they often return to year after year. Bald eagles prefer large trees along river corridors while golden eagles favor nesting in cliffs or rocky crags, but will occasionally nest in trees as well. Nests are typically around 5 feet in diameter, but since the birds often add to them each year, nests 9 feet across or even larger can be found.
Young eagles have a challenging start to life. After nearly 35 days of incubation for bald eagles, and an average of 43 days for golden eagles, the young birds pry their way out of their egg encasement using their egg tooth, a pointed lump on the top of their beak. It is common in both species of eagles for the elder sibling to kill and eat the younger sibling, and the adults don’t intervene in this dramatic exhibition of sibling rivalry. The surviving chicks grow quickly, adding a pound to their body weight every four to five days. By three weeks, the eaglets are already a foot tall. In preparation for flight, the eaglets begin to grow their mottled black juvenile feathers, covering the downy feathers that keep them warm with feathers more suitable for flight. The young eagles embark upon their first wobbly flights between 10 and 13 weeks, when they are almost as large as their parents. Nearly 40 percent of bald eagles leaving the nest perish during this first flight.
Colorado serves as a wintering ground for bald eagles. The number of summer breeding pairs, though, has increased steadily over the past years; from a historical average of only two to three nesting pairs to the 2005 count of 51 breeding pairs in the state! As winter approaches, though, our bald eagle population increases to nearly 800 due to birds wintering here from various locations throughout Canada. We may not think of Colorado as having mild winters, but it all depends on your frame of reference, I guess.
As parents across the valley prepare to send their children off to school, I can’t help but think about the many species of wildlife that, like the eagles, must send their young off to fend for themselves. And I am grateful that I am sending my children off to safe, secure schools where they will be nurtured and nourished, as opposed to literally leaving them to the wolves.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate studies for Walking Mountains: A Science Learning Center and she is gratefully looking forward to the start of school.