There is no question that bald eagles are skilled hunters. They can spot a fish from a mile away and fly to it in under a minute.
But they’re also masters of something scientists call kleptoparasitism: the art of stealing food from others. In my book The Year of the Eagle, I documented bald eagles stealing food from crows, great blue herons and even other eagles.
A couple of days ago, however, I captured an especially dramatic act of thievery. I saw a bald eagle steal a rabbit from a young red fox. Even more impressive: at times, this battle played out more than 20 feet in the air.
It happened as I was photographing the foxes in the San Juan Island National Historical Park on San Juan Island in Washington state. The foxes aren’t native. They were introduced by settlers in the 1900s to try to thin the numbers of European rabbits that were introduced to the island in the 1890s.
The rabbits aren’t the foxes' first choice for supper. They actually prefer insects, berries and voles. But the berries and voles have been displaced by the rabbits, which have clearcut the prairie with their vast burrows. While patches of flowers and red grasses make the prairie attractive at certain times of year, it’s actually an area of tremendous devastation.
I spent the day watching several young foxes, called kits, rest and play on the prairie. I counted at least eight kits. There are probably more. Shortly before sunset, they started hunting. One fox managed to snag a rabbit’s foot. Several kits gave chase, but it made it to its den to feed.
About 15 minutes later, a red fox caught a rabbit and was carrying it across the meadow. I panned my camera with it to capture the action. Then behind me, I heard the cry of a bald eagle. I turned around and saw it approaching fast. I knew it wanted the rabbit. I intently trained my camera on the fox bracing for a split second of action.
To my surprise, the scene was even more dramatic than I expected. I thought the fox would drop the rabbit, giving the eagle an easy dinner.
Instead, the fox, with its jaw still clenched on the rabbit, inadvertently got snagged by the bald eagle. The eagle lifted the young fox and rabbit into the sky triggering an even more dramatic struggle.
There have been stories of bald eagles taking off with animals as large as young deer, but while they’re strong, they’re not that strong. They can comfortably lift about half their body weight — so about five or six pounds. The young fox and rabbit were likely just beyond that weight.
As you can see from the image sequence below, the kit put up quite a fight, swinging back and forth. The eagle transferred the rabbit to its right talon and eventually let the fox go. The fox fell from enough height to trigger a small dust cloud when it hit the ground. (I've also turned the image sequence into a short video.)
The whole battle was over in less than 8 seconds.
Don’t worry: the fox was fine. It shook off the encounter and resumed playing with its fellow kits. I took several pictures of it after the ordeal and couldn’t find a single scratch.
From what I’ve been able to research, this was a rare encounter. The managers of San Juan Island National Historical Park are eager to get rid of the rabbits because of their destructive ways and have studied potential predators. While the foxes will go after the rabbits if they can’t find something better, for the park’s eagles, 97 percent of their diet is fish and other birds.