Robyn Radcliffe was there when Hercules was first born. Now she’s been watching the four-year-old bald eagle soar off Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge.
“I remember when he hatched, and now he’s flying around the city without batting an eye — pretty cool. “
Meet Hercules, the trained eagle
Radcliffe, the manager at Pacific Northwest Raptors, has worked with trained eagles for 11 years. They work with eagles primarily for educational purposes, Radcliffe says.
“Having an eagle fly from a kilometer away to land on your glove is an experience like no other.”
“People rarely get the chance to see them so close and connect with nature, so our goal is to bring these amazing birds closer to people and inspire them to want to protect them, to want to make changes in their lives to help protect our planet. What better way to understand nature than to see it close up – but flying and doing what they do best.”
Instead of “training eagles,” she refers to her relationship with birds like Hercules as a partnership, working to “bring out the best in them, to help them achieve their potential.”
“Eagles, out of most of the raptors we work with, are somewhat difficult at times — they are very sensitive to new things and people, places, and we have to be sensitive to ensure they are not stressed or uncomfortable,” Radcliffe said.
Hercules, in particular, is described by Radcliffe as being “chill” and having “such a cool personality.” So he was certainly comfortable enough to achieve spectacular, bird’s-eye view footage of the Vancouver skies for the documentary Eagles Next Door (Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV). They equipped him with a small action camera that weighed 30 to 40 grams, attached like a backpack — a first for that kind of endeavour in Canada.
Radcliffe said they prepared Hercules for the voyage by spending time with him at the park below the bridge and slowly progressing from short flights to longer flights around the site. They watched his body language closely to see if he was distracted by anything, and instead they found he was focused, keen, and curious — signs that suggested that he was enjoying the task.
Finally, they took him up to Burrard Bridge. Radcliffe said they were prepared to call it off if Hercules appeared to be intimidated by the bridge or the road, or if he wasn’t focusing in on Lindsay Mitchell, the other trainer below.
Eagles have sharp vision, can spot prey over 8 km away
Bald eagles can see seven times better than humans and both eyes focus forward on a single item, allowing them to have very accurate depth perception. From as far as 300 metres away, eagles can spot prey over eight square kilometres. So Radcliffe was pleased to see that Hercules had his sights set on his destination.
“He was just so on it, not fazed by the highway, bridge, anything. He saw Lindsay immediately and wanted to go, so I let him go — and voila. Amazing footage,” Radcliffe said.
Many countries across the world work with trained eagles for a number of uses, including falconry — hunting quarry in its natural state with a trained bird of prey. Specifically, falconry has been practiced in the Middle East for centuries as tribes used the birds to hunt in the desert. Today, falconry is considered a rite of passage and a traditional sport in Arab nations.
Record-setting flight in Dubai
More similar to Radcliffe’s work with eagles, she notes a world-record voyage in Dubai, where an eagle equipped with a mini camera flies down from the world's tallest tower — the Burj Khalifa skyscraper — to a field down below. The event’s organizers, Freedom Conservation, claimed it was the highest-ever recorded bird flight from a man-made structure. The charity works with SOS (Save our Species) and UNESCO to raise awareness of the plight of threatened wildlife.
After Hercules’s own successful flight, Radcliffe is looking forward to doing more of that kind of camera work with eagles.
“Working on getting a better attachment and a smaller camera will help make it possible,” she said. “We have some cool ideas to try it on different birds and in different places. It’s so cool to be able to see it from a bird’s-eye view, so to speak.”
Even though training with birds and trying new things with them can be challenging, Radcliffe says having a partnership with amazing and intelligent eagles like Hercules is a unique, rewarding experience.
“Ultimately they are incredible, we feel so very privileged to work with them and have them accept us as their partners,” she said. “Having an eagle fly from a kilometer away to land on your glove is an experience like no other.”