I saw a recent YouTube video that went viral showing an eagle swooping down from the skies and supposedly carrying off a small child in a playground in Canada. I dismissed the video as a hoax, which it was. Many large predators will eat a human as readily as any other prey item if they think they can get away with it. Great white sharks, tigers and saltwater crocodiles have dined on people for centuries. They still do. Reports of pythons killing people are too frequent for comfort, and documented records exist of their finishing up the killing with a human meal. Is it possible a big bird might decide a small person would make a suitable meal and then successfully carry out the plan?
Plenty of credible records are on hand that some of our largest avian predators, such as great horned owls, golden eagles and red-tailed hawks, will catch and carry off small pets. Without question, many unguarded puppies and kittens have been the victim of predatory birds. For some small dog breeds, including Manchester terriers, toy poodles and Chihuahuas even a full-grown adult running around outside unattended would be an ideal target. A pet rabbit hopping about in a backyard would be viewed as fast-food by any passing eagle or large hawk. But young children? Would a hawk, owl or eagle dare to try, even if they could pick a child up and carry it away?
Despite human attitudes that people are special and should be outside the menu list of wild predators, most of them couldn’t care less. We are a package of edible protein. But today’s birds would typically do an instinctive cost-benefit analysis and not risk attacking a child if an adult was nearby. In addition, birds of prey assess whether they are likely to be able to subdue the prey upon attack and whether they will be able to carry it away. An ambulatory child would ordinarily fail to meet either criterion.
Nonetheless, stories of aerial predators that can swoop down and carry off a small human are a staple of myths, fairy tales and speculative fiction. And once upon a time ... such a creature was real.
A study by paleontologists has confirmed that a now-extinct giant eagle lived in New Zealand about the time Columbus was sailing the ocean blue, and they may have preyed occasionally upon children and small adults – a chilling thought. Biological information about Haast’s eagle, as the predator is called, is based on skeletal material examined by the scientists. As with modern birds of prey, females typically got larger than males. A male Haast’s eagle is estimated to have reached a body weight of 27 pounds. The largest females were probably more than 40 pounds, which is huge for a flying bird. Ostriches, the largest birds on earth today, are heavier, but they neither fly nor do they eat people. To put the size of Haast’s eagles in perspective, the largest bald eagles are around three feet in body length, have an outstretched wingspan of slightly under eight feet (which is right big in itself), but average under 15 pounds in total weight. That’s pretty paltry compared to 40 pounds. Haast’s eagles are indisputably the largest eagles known to science. Haast’s eagles are gone now, but the thought comes to mind that when the Maoris, the original settlers of New Zealand, sent their children out to play it was always with the reminder to “watch for eagles, and run inside if you see one.”
To me, knowing that a bird twice the size of a bald eagle once existed is an intriguing thought. But YouTube videos notwithstanding, no bird living today can scoop up a human toddler in its talons and fly away. A small, unattended pet? Maybe. But birds of prey are no threat to human children. Based on the wealth of evidence we are provided on a daily basis, the most dangerous animals that humans need to worry about are other humans.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.