Yesterday while hiking in Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Lassen County CA), Leonard and I saw something puzzling and for which we do not have an explanation.

Two bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), an adult and a juvenile, flew overhead. The adult appeared to have dried grass in its talons. The juvenile carried nothing. When the juvenile approached the adult, they passed the grass from the adult to the juvenile, leaving the mature eagle with no grass.  Both eagles circled above Leonard and me for about a half minute before the adult flew off. The juvenile continued to circle for about another minute, slowly letting the grass drop a few pieces as a time. Eventually the juvenile left in the opposite direction from the adult.

Leonard and I have no idea what happened. At first we thought the eagles’ actions might be involved in courtship. But an adult should not be courting a juvenile. Additionally, their actions were not those of courting bald eagles.

A friend suggested that maybe the adult was teaching and/or practicing hunting behavior with the younger eagle. Bald eagles are known to steal fish and other prey from raptors in flight. Leonard and I often watch bald eagles steal fish directly from the talons of osprey or harass osprey until they drop their prey. Maybe the juvenile bald eagle was learning to steal food from other birds.

In the literature are anecdotal reports of bald eagles “playing” by passing sticks and other objects, including plastic bottles. I can find no definitive reference for these claims, but maybe the bald eagles were just having some fun.

Leonard and I wish we knew what those bald eagles were doing. Any ideas, or better still, references to this type of behavior would be welcome. It is a conundrum.

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