Eagles and Human Babies
As well as crocodiles, sharks and dingoes, Australia has a bird accused of eating people.
Tim Low lives in a state of perpetual surprise at everything wild and alive. His response is to write searching books, Australian Geographic articles and this blog. His book Where Song Began (Penguin, 2014) recently became the first nature book ever to win the Australian Book Industry Award for best general non-fiction. Tim’s newest book is called The New Nature.
LARGE EAGLES are strong enough to fly off with human babies, so we should not be surprised by occasional reports of this happening. An African crowned eagle was recorded taking a six year old child, and the skull of another child was found in a nest. The New Guinea harpy-eagle and Australian wedge-tailed eagle are both said to have taken babies. Aboriginal children in some regions of Australia were taught to fear eagles, both supernatural and real.
In a book published in 1881 Victorian pioneer James Dawson mentioned a predation event:
“The eagle is hated on account of its readiness to attack young children. The natives mention[ed?] an instance of a baby having been carried off by one, while crawling outside a wuurn [hut] near the spot where the village of Caramut now stands.”
Historian and former school teacher Dick Kimber told me about a student of his, in Alice Springs, whose great aunt, as a young girl, saw a wedge-tailed eagle take a baby from a coolamon. This happened in about 1915.
(Image Credit: Rod Waddington)
These two accounts fall short of proof but deserve to be taken seriously. Wedge-tails sometimes attack adult kangaroos, and babies and toddlers fall well within their prey range.
Ludwig Leichhardt and Charles Sturt wrote about smaller birds of prey – kites – visiting them in large numbers when they explored inland Australia. One campsite in Leichhardt had kites pouncing down “even upon our plates, although held in our hands, to rob us of our dinners.” Sturt was once approached from a great distance by hundreds of kites that came within “a few feet” of his men, eyeing them steadily. These birds had obviously learned from Aboriginal people that human camps were a source of food, and eagles probably thought the same way.
The fact that no baby predation is clearly documented can be put down to historical circumstances. During pioneer times eagles were shot on sight as presumed lamb killers. When rabbits swarmed across the land these were adopted as easy prey. Eagles now have road-killed kangaroos as a reliable food. They do not hunt in urban areas, so while seeking prey they would seldom set their eyes on a human baby.