As It Happens

An eagle snatched a baby hawk for dinner, then ended up adopting it 

A pair of bald eagles near Nanaimo, B.C., have adopted a baby red-tailed hawk and are raising it alongside their own eaglet. But while the hawk is now part of the eagles’ family, it could have just as easily been their dinner.

Bald eagles near Nanaimo raise a red-tailed hawk alongside their own eaglet

This photo, framed by a black circle through the lens of a telescope, shows a speckled hawk perched in a nest.
A young hawk perches in the nest it shares with an eaglet near Nanaimo, B.C. (Pam McCartney)

A pair of bald eagles near Nanaimo, B.C., have adopted a baby red-tailed hawk and are raising it alongside their own eaglet. 

But while the hawk is now part of the eagles' family, it could have just as easily been their dinner.

"This bird likely came from a red-tailed hawk nest that was preyed upon by the adult bald eagles," ornithologist David Bird, a professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal's McGill University, told As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington.

Webcam footage of the eagles' nest on Gabriola Island captured the mamma bird dropping the little red-tailed hawk into its nest earlier this month —  likely "to be torn apart," according to Bird.

"And the next thing you know, the little hawk bounces up and starts begging for food right away," Bird said. "That's what saved its life."

Watch: Bald eagle drops a baby hawk into its nest:

Pam McCartney, a volunteer with the wildlife organization Growls, was watching a livestream of the nest when she saw the mom drop the baby hawk.

She thought for sure it was a goner. 

"Usually when I watch, like David Attenborough and his shows, I can close my eyes or fast forward or whatever, but this was live at the time, and I was just like, oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh," McCartney said.

But to her welcome surprise, neither the mother nor the eaglet attacked the little hawk.

"She just kind of dropped it, you know, and it came alive. And [the] eaglet was just like, 'What the heck, Mom? What is this? Why is it moving?'"

At first, she says, the two baby birds kept to themselves on opposite sides of the nest, and the mother didn't pay much attention to the hawk.

But by nightfall, she says they'd become a real family, with the mother eagle feeding and fussing over both baby birds equally.

A black circle frames this image of a juvenile bald eagle, large and dark-feathered, in a nest next to a baby red-hailed hawk, a bit smaller and speckled.
A juvenile bald eagle, left, shares its nest with a red-tailed hawk in this image captured through a telescope. (Pam McCartney)

Growls operates a number of webcams on the island to monitor eagle nests. The group is keeping the exact location of the rare inter-species family a secret, so they don't get overwhelmed by birdwatchers.

McCartney says the eaglet's parents had lost one of their two chicks a few weeks ago, and she suspects the new hawk has taken its place.

"In my mind of growing up on Disney, I'm seeing this eaglet think like, 'Was this another little sibling?'" she said.

2nd time this has happened in B.C.

Bird says the rare phenomenon came about due to an incredible confluence of events. 

First of all, he says it's "a miracle" that the hawk didn't die in the powerful clutch of the eagle's talons. 

"I've had these on my fist. I know what that feels like," he said.

It's also amazing, he says, that the mother opted to feed the baby bird instead of kill it. 

And finally, he says it's incredible odds that all of this happened in one of just a handful of nests on the island that are monitored by Growls' cameras. 

"I don't think in my lifetime I would have believed I'd see that," Bird said. "It's quite a rare thing to see."

Watch: A livestream of the eagles raising a baby hawk:

Rare, but not unprecedented. In 2017, a pair of nesting bald eagles in Sidney, B.C., made headlines when they raised a red-tailed hawk as their own.

In that case, the hawk thrived in its new family, growing up strong and healthy and eventually leaving the nest. Bird says it did require a bit of extra help from scientists to get access to the proper food as it grew older, as hawks and eagles don't feed on the same kind of prey. 

That success story, Bird says, bodes well for the Gabriola Island hawk. 

"He's in very good health. And his sibling has seemed to have accepted him," he said.

McCartney, meanwhile, has been watching the mixed family obsessively. 

"It's incredible to me, and I just find them to be, like, this happy family," she said. "They all get along [and] sometimes they give each other little, you know, eagle kisses or whatever — raptor kisses," she said.

Watching the birds bond reminds her of how much humans have in common with wildlife, she says.

"It's similar to us," she said. "We're not all conventional and we're not exactly how everybody thinks we should be or we're different — and we're beautiful, and it's beautiful." 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with David Bird produced by Morgan Passi.

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