Sunday, July 13, 2014

Birdlore: White-tailed Sea Eagle, the Eagle with the Sunlit Eye

The White-tailed Sea Eagle is the reigning king of the skies in northern Europe and Asia.

As the largest European raptor, they are an apex hunter (top of the food chain).  They can be found soaring along the coast at heights of 200 - 300 meters looking for prey (typically fish) in calm waters.  They also possess, on average, one of the greatest wingspans among eagles at 1.78 to 2.45 meters (8.04 feet) and rival only the Stellar’s Sea Eagle for the title of greatest wingspan!  The Stellar’s Sea Eagle although larger in weight and length is the closest rival for median wingspan at 1.95 to 2.5 meters (6.4 to 8.2 feet) amongst living eagles.  A Bald Eagle by comparison has a wingspan of 5.8 to 7.5 feet.

A Norway White-tailed Sea Eagle stretching its broad wings in flight!
 The White-tailed Sea Eagle has longed been admired for its size and majesty among early European societies.  The Gaelic name, iolaire suile nag rein, translates as “eagle with the sunlit eye” inspires a sense of fantasy and awe.  The name may reflect the White-tailed Sea Eagle’s very prominent pale yellow eyes.

On the Orkney Isles, an archipelago north of Scotland, a 3000-year-old tomb was found in the 1950’s with bones belonging to the White-tailed Sea Eagle species scattered among human remains.  While the exact purpose of the Sea Eagle bones hasn’t been determined, researchers speculate that they are religiously important or a clan’s symbolic sign.  In some places in Scotland some people would actually leave their dead out in the open to be scavenged by eagles before burying the bones.

Fishermen of the Shetland Islands, farther north than the Orkney Isles, still refer to the White-tailed Sea Eagle by its Anglo-Saxon name, Erne or “the soarer”.  Centuries back, fishermen believed the White-tailed Sea Eagle had magical abilities to call fish up to the surface with belly up in submission for a successful catch!  In hopes of improving catches, fishermen would rub eagle fat on their hooks.

Unfortunately, the White-tailed Sea Eagle has been extirpated in the British Isles since the early 1900’s due to persecution and loss of habitat.  The last Sea Eagle in the British Isles, also a rare albino, lived on the Shetland Isles and was protected for thirty years by the island’s inhabitants.  Sadly, this beautiful bird was shot in 1917, officially making the White-tailed Sea Eagle extinct in the UK. (Extirpation refers to a species which ceases to exist in a chosen geographic area of study, though it still exists elsewhere.  Local extinctions may be followed by a replacement of the species taken from other locations as is the case for the White-tailed Sea Eagle.)

In the last decade or so, reintroduction efforts have seen the slow return of the White-tailed Sea Eagle to the shores of Scotland, and more recently Ireland.  Chicks from thriving Sea Eagle populations in Norway were raised and then released to establish their own territories and mates. 

Cousteau, WBS's White-tailed Sea Eagle (photo: Jessica Bunke)
If you wish to meet this bird of legend, come to the World Bird Sanctuary to meet the White-tailed Sea Eagle’s ambassador--Cousteau.  He lives on the WBS display line year round for the public to see.  Often times, you’ll see and hear him calling out with a loud keening greeting.

Cousteau is available for adoption in our Adopt A Bird program.  Your adoption fee will help to feed, house and care for Cousteau in the coming year.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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