Wedgies not a threat: eagle expert weighs in on viral photo

By AG Staff Writer 15 July 2016
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Last week, this photo of a wedge-tailed eagle attacking a boy at a wildlife park in Alice Springs went viral around the world.

ON WEDNESDAY, 6 July, a crowd was enjoying a popular bird show at the Alice Springs Desert Park in the Northern Territory when the star attraction – a wedged-tailed eagle – surprised onlookers by swooping a boy in the audience, latching on to his face and head with its talons.

The resulting photo, shared by Christine O’Connell on social media platform Instagram was picked up by media outlets around the world, including Fox News in the USA and the UK’s BBC. 

“Everyone was a bit shell-shocked — it happened so quick. Nobody said anything. All of a sudden one of the guides ran over and stood the bird down and stood in front of him,” Christine, who is travelling around Australia with her husband, told the ABC.

Witnesses say the boy, believed to be about six years old, was playing with the zipper on his hoodie, which is thought to have distracted the large bird of prey from its performance.

Watch the trailer to Simon Cherriman’s 2014 documentary, Where Do Eages Dare?

We spoke to WA-based wedge-tailed eagle expert, environmental biologist and documentary-maker Simon Cherriman about the incident.

“Young eagles are very inquisitive, and the bird may well have been investigating a noise made by the boy’s jacket,” said Simon. However, he added that viral coverage of the event has sensationalised the incident and the threat to the boy, and he wants to stress that wedge-tailed eagles in the wild are no threat to humans.

“I don’t believe for a moment the bird was attacking him in an act of predation,” said Simon, who was the AG Young Conservationist of the Year in 2010. “To say the eagle was trying to carry the boy away like a prey item is purely sensationalist.”

While wedge-tailed eagles have been observed attacking large animals – including kangaroos, emus and goats – in the past, Simon explained that in the wild the birds are “extremely shy and usually avoid people”.

“This eagle is a captive, hand-reared bird whose behaviour does not accurately reflect that of a wild bird. It is misleading and inaccurate to use this incident to make generalisations about potential wedge-tailed eagle threats to humans, as I have seen some people doing. Trained birds are well-fed and not likely to attempt to feed on any prey during a raptor show, least of all something as large as a person,” he said.

A statement from the park said the boy suffered “superficial” injuries, and that “a thorough investigation regarding the circumstances behind this incident is under way and the eagle will be removed from the show while this investigation is ongoing.”