Birder’s perspective: Why did the bald eagle land on the Seattle Mariners pitcher? [videos]

It was a normal spring day at my park service office in the Twin Cities. We’d just received eight inches of April snow, it was 26 degrees outside, and many of my friends were posting pictures of attending the Minnesota Twins 2018 opening-day festivities.

Then my social media went a little crazy with eagle videos. The video, shot from several angles, showed a captive and trained bald eagle flying around Target Field while musical artist Dessa sang the national anthem.

Then the eagle circled around James Paxton, the day’s starting pitcher for the Mariners. The bird cruised past Paxton, then toward him and landed. After a moment, the eagle flew at the pitcher, awkwardly landing on the pitcher’s shoulder, sliding off and then landing on the ground. Soon a bird-handler ran in and the eagle flew to him.

So what happened?

In my previous life, I gave programs with live birds of prey for about 10 years. When I saw a snippet of the video, I knew immediately what went weird for the eagle.

First, I want to say that Paxton did all the right things while being confronted with a 10-pound bird-of-prey with sharp talons flying right at him. He remained calm, protected his face without harming the eagle, and moved in slow fluid moves to allow the eagle to reconsider its position. Well done, James.

If you watch the bald eagle, it’s circling the green field, trying to find the place it’s supposed to land. When the bird gets toward Paxton, it notices that his arm is in the crooked position. When you work with birds of prey, a crooked arm is usually a place of security, and after flight, it means if you land on it, you get a meaty treat.

The bird flies in and notices Paxton’s arm and tries to land but goes to the ground to reassess the situation. Seeing Paxton’s arm still crooked, it tries again. Since Paxton’s arm is too close to his chest for the bird to land, the eagle decides to go for the highest perch, which is Paxton’s shoulder.

Meanwhile, Paxton keeps his hands down, his head low and bends his body to avoid harm to himself and harm to the bird – not an easy feat when 10 pounds of national symbol flies at your face. After a few seconds, the bird slides down, leaving some talon marks on Paxton's shirt, and lands on the ground. At that point, one of the handlers runs out to get the eagle. I’m sure they were having a mild panic attack  – no one looks good if a trained bird inadvertently causes bloodshed.

This wasn’t an attack; this was a confused bird flying around in an unnatural situation trying to figure out where to land so it could get its food reward.

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