A photograph of a massive eagle clutching a child’s head in its talons has set the Internet aflutter—but what was the bird trying to do?
Christine O’Connell captured the wedge-tailed eagle swooping down on the child during "Eagle Encounter" at Alice Springs Desert Park in Australia’s Northern Territory.
The park confirmed to Australia’s NT News that the incident happened July 6 and that the boy had sustained only superficial injuries. They added that they have removed the eagle from the show until they complete an investigation into what happened.
John Parks, a professor of animal science at Cornell University, speculated that there were two possible reasons for the eagle's behavior: hunting or defense.
“Instinctively they are carnivorous animals that are looking for something to eat, or defending themselves from something that may be a threat,” he says. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Even so, “it would be kind of unusual that it was looking at the child as a prospective meal,” Parks says. That's because captive raptors used in shows tend to be well fed and are less inclined to hunt.
Wedge-tailed eagles are Australia’s largest bird of prey, with wingspans that can reach more then seven feet (two meters) across. They typically hunt rabbits, but can eat anything from lizards, snakes, and other birds to mammals as large as kangaroos, dogs, young goats, and lambs.
More likely is that something about the child caught the eagle’s attention. “It decided to strike at the child, maybe in a defensive kind of motion or movement, and then kept going when there was no real threat.”
O'Connell said in her Instagram post that the "young boy in the green kept pulling his zipper up and down."
He adds that even if this specific bird was not particularly aggressive, it’s possible that this bird of prey could grab a small child. (However, they're not big enough to carry them off.)
Indeed, their talons are so sharp that it’s fortunate the child wasn’t more seriously injured: “Once they decide to really go after something," he says, "they have a strong grip, [and] it’s very difficult to intervene.”
Adds Parks,"most people would not hold the eagle responsible. He was just doing what comes natural to him, and it’s the responsibility of the people that are doing these programs to try and be sure that incidents like that don’t happen."