Bald eagles are typically known for their elegant flying, skilled hunting and having such majestic strength and beauty that they became the U.S. national bird. But they also possess a lesser-known talent: swimming.
Yes, bald eagles are really good at swimming, a fact some of us learned this week from a viral video published by New Hampshire TV station WMUR.
In it, a bald eagle’s white head bobs rhythmically through the water. Occasionally a wing can be seen as the bird does an avian equivalent of the butterfly stroke. It moves quickly and gracefully through the water, covering a considerable distance before it reaches the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. It calmly strides onto land, shaking the water from its feathers before it strikes a watchful, picturesque pose.
The video was shot by Tyler Blake, who spotted the display early in the morning before he headed to his construction job.
“I ran down to the docks and I saw an eagle flapping in the water,” Blake told WMUR. “I’m, like, ‘Wow!’ I wasn’t sure if it was hurt or something.”
Eagle researcher Jim Watson from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says “swimming is not an unusual activity” for these birds.
That’s because bald eagles are open-water foragers, catching fish straight out of rivers and lakes. Typically, they will spot a fish on the surface of the water and divebomb down, talons outstretched. Watson says usually, they snatch the fish off the surface while keeping their feathers relatively dry, then fly back up into the air with a tasty meal.
But sometimes, that hunting maneuver gets a little more complicated.
“It may have gone as planned, they just got a bigger fish and said, ‘I’m going to stick with this, I can make it to shore and so it’s a good deal,’ ” Watson says. Or, the bird might have missed the fish and ended up in the water.
Either way, the eagle needs to start swimming, because “their feathers get soaked and they can’t fly away,” Watson says. “Throughout the years I’ve seen them swim a lot of times and usually it’s because they fly out and attempt to catch a fish in the water and maybe get waterlogged.”
If it catches a large fish, Watson says the eagle can actually grip the fish with its talons as it gracefully swims to shore.
This one doesn’t appear to have a fish, though, probably meaning that it either missed or released the fish. And even though an eagle swimming is not necessarily a sign of distress because the birds are capable swimmers, Watson says there have been cases of eagles drowning.
“It takes a lot of energy to swim in the water,” he says. “It’s a natural flying motion … just more difficult to do that in the water.”
Eagles have strong chest muscles from flying. Just as with the butterfly stroke, Watson says, “they actually use the wingtips and push down in the water with their wings.”
This isn’t the first time a bald eagle has been caught on video swimming. Here’s a video posted on YouTube of an eagle swimming in Alaska in 2011 that shows another angle of the bird’s powerful movements: