Midwestern residents enjoy a treat each winter watching eagles devour Canada geese on ice-covered lakes.
Male eagles with a wingspan of about 7 feet only weigh 8 to 10 pounds, so they can’t fly off with a dead goose. Instead they choose to perch on the goose and use their sharp beak and talons to dig through feathers to eat the succulent flesh – or in other words, goose on ice.
Huge numbers of Canada geese stop here during their migration. Many drop in at night and leave at first light. Some geese wounded by hunters may make it to a lake or pond and are not able to leave. This partly is because hunters are rightly required by law to use only steel shot for waterfowl.
Lead shot in heavily hunted regions caused birds to pick up shot while feeding off the bottom of lakes or in fields, causing deadly lead poisoning. Sadly, lead shot was more efficient for dropping waterfowl. Geese and ducks often fly long distances before dropping dead after being hit by the faster steel shot, a treat for bald eagles that eagerly claim this easy meal.
Some geese die after landing and some are crippled. Bald eagles are classified as scavengers and have no problem eating an already dead goose or duck.
A wounded goose is easy prey and you might be treated to watching an eagle fold in their wings and dive over 100 miles per hour on the helpless creature. They, too, accelerate dives when a fish is spotted, a common sight in Branson’s Taneycomo Lake where trout are wounded by bad hook sets or poor catch-and-release techniques.
Occasionally a golden eagle will follow the waterfowl flocks through our flyway. They are aggressive predators taking on healthy geese, turkey or, in some recorded instances, small deer or dogs. Goldens are one of the fastest creatures on earth with a diving speed of 150 to 200 mph with a 6- to 7-foot wingspan. Missouri and Kansas wildlife areas occasionally report a golden eagle following migrations, so one occasionally turns up here for a short stay. They don’t like civilization.
Nature is cruel, and a sick, old or wounded creature often has a bad end. But don’t blame eagles or other predators, they are just making a living.
THE MIGRATION SHOW: Cast a glance over our lakes, rivers and ponds to be rewarded by the sights and sounds of ducks halfway through their migration.
Resident birds put on less of a show in their descents and takeoffs while wild ducks and geese might make a dozen sweeping passes before landing. They may eventually drop into ponds or lakes on park property. You really can’t blame them for finding a quiet spot after dodging shotgun pellets and predators from the northern United States or Canada.
Watch closely with any telescoping device to see each duck’s colors, some resembling fine jewels when illuminated by intense sunlight. Canada or snow geese are drabber and yet have a simple beauty. Artists make a living capturing the elegant markings of each duck or goose, though their work of colors that will never compare to feathers on live birds.
Ducks are identified by two categories: divers and puddle ducks. Some divers are most sought after by hunters like bluebills, generally called lesser or greater scaup, redheads, goldeneye, ruddy ducks and several others species that dive down in tight formations and skirt the water surface in an amazing aerial ballet.
The most sought after by hunters or photographers are canvasback ducks, once the choice of market hunters from the Depression years and earlier because they sold for up to $10 a pair. They are large, beautiful ducks with wine-colored heads and bodies sometimes larger than a mallard. Pintails, a puddle duck, are the sleekest and perhaps most beautiful. Wild mallard drakes’ green heads illuminate in sunlight.
Wild ducks will likely not allow you close enough for a photo with anything less than a 200mm camera lens, and that often is not enough. They may flush at the very sight of you on shore, 1,000 yards away.
You, too, might see a few pelicans, swans and other water birds on the lake and, in fact, any kind of duck or goose imaginable. We have found old squaw ducks and brant geese that are common on the east coast somehow enter our Mississippi Flyway. Even biologists are not sure why.
The show is yours, just take the time to watch. Some have already passed south, but others will be close behind to provide a beautiful touch of nature’s finest.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.