As It Happens

The story behind this dramatic photo of an eagle clutching a rabbit and a dangling fox

What I expected was one explosive photo as the eagle swoops down and tries to steal this rabbit from the fox," says American wildlife photographer Kevin Ebi. "What I had not expected was that all three of them would take to the sky."

The mid-air food fight captured by Kevin Ebi won an honourable mention at the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards

A bald eagle tries to snatch a rabbit from a fox, but the furry predator doesn't give up easily. (Kevin Ebi/Audubon Photography Awards)
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Transcript

Kevin Ebi was just trying to snap some pictures of baby foxes "at the peak of their cuteness, doing cute fox things."

Instead, he ended up capturing a dramatic mid-air battle between two hungry and determined predators that earned him an honourable mention at the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards.

The photo shows a bald eagle snatching a rabbit from a tiny fox, which gets swept about seven metres into the air as it clings to its prey.

"The fact that this one photo really tells a very dramatic story about just an incredible encounter kind of gives everybody something to appreciate about it," Ebi told As It Happens guest host Megan Williams. 

'Behind me I hear the cry of a bald eagle'

Ebi originally went to San Juan Island National Historical Park in Friday Harbor, Wash., to photograph the foxes, which were introduced to the island nearly a century ago to hunt rabbits. 

He spotted one of the kits, just a few months old, attempting to do just that. 

"I loved the fact that this tiny fox is carrying a rabbit that's almost as big as its head," he said. "And so I'm panning my camera with it across this beautiful prairie ... and behind me I hear the cry of a bald eagle."

The dramatic photoshoot began when Kevin Ebi snapped a picture of a baby fox with a rabbit at San Juan Island National Historical Park in Washington. (Kevin Ebi/LivingWilderness.com)

Ebi is pretty familiar with the birds of prey, having documented them extensively for his book The Year of the Eagle, so he had an inkling of what might happen next. 

"We have this impression that eagles are just incredibly strong predators, which they are. But what most people don't realize is that they actually don't want to work any harder for their food than they have to, and so they actually are quite skilled thieves," he said.

"What I expected was one explosive photo as the eagle swoops down and tries to steal this rabbit from the fox. And what I had not expected was that all three of them would take to the sky."

The eagle was surprised too 

What happened next, he described as a "dramatic battle that played out over about eight seconds." He documented the whole thing in sequence on his blog, Living Wilderness. 

"While the eagle was able to carry the fox and the rabbit up about 20 feet into the air briefly, that was just sheer momentum because the eagle was flying so fast," he said.

"But once it reached that height, it was rapidly sinking back to Earth — and you could see the eagle trying to drop the fox, but still keep the rabbit."

After the bald eagle swoops in to steal the fox's catch, the pair tussle mid-air. (Kevin Ebi/LivingWilderness.com)

This was no easy feat for the eagle. Not only was the fox determined to hold onto its prey, but one of the eagle's talons appeared to be snagged in the scruff of the fox's neck.

"The eagle realized it was in trouble pretty fast. I think it expected, as I did, that the fox would just see this gigantic bird with his mammoth wingspan and just get scared and drop the rabbit and run off," he said.

"You could just tell that it wasn't prepared for what actually had happened and was trying to kind of improvize."

In the end, the eagle won the fight, shaking off the fox just a few feet from the ground and flying off with its prize. 

The defeated fox then scampered "sheepishly" off to a den. Ebi said it appeared to be unharmed. 

After about eight seconds, the over-encumbered eagle drops the fox and flies off with the rabbit. (Kevin Ebi/LivingWilderness.com)

Ebi's photo didn't snag the grand prize at the Audubon Photography Awards. That honour went to Kathrin Swoboda for her close-up of a red-winged blackbird appearing to blow smoke rings with its visible breath on a frigid Virginia morning.

But Ebi's image of the eagle, the fox and the rabbit captured hearts worldwide after being featured in National Geographic, the Weather Channel, the Washington Post and more. 

He says the image has something for everyone. 

"I think that there are a lot of people who certainly appreciate the bald eagle as this majestic bird, and seeing this majestic bird fly off with two animals, you know, certainly speaks to its strength," he said.

"I also think that a lot of other people identify with the fox, and as they see the fox struggle to keep the dinner that was taken from it and escape with its life, I think people also appreciate that element of it."

Ebi didn't comment on those who may identify with the rabbit.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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