Loons, like this group of chicks and an adult, can be extraordinarily tough creatures. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Audubon | Star-Herald

It had to be one of the strangest cases of eagle death that Danielle D’Auria has ever seen.

A wildlife biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, D’Auria got word of a dead eagle found at Highland Lake in Bridgton. The bird had been found with a puncture wound in its chest and, because it is illegal to kill bald eagles, D’Auria had the bird radiographed for a possible bullet wound at Norway Veterinary Hospital.

What she eventually found astounded her. The evidence collected from the radiograph, and a pathologist’s examination at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, indicated that the big bird had been stabbed through the heart by the beak of a loon.

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“We know conflicts between bald eagles and loons have soared in recent years as a result of the recovery of our eagle population,” D’Auria wrote in a blog entry for MDIFW. “We are seeing more and more eagle predation on loon chicks and even adult loons.”

In investigating the incident, which occurred on July 26, 2019, the man who discovered the eagle, John Cooley, loon biologist at the Loon Preservation Committee in New Hampshire, noticed a dead loon chick near the eagle when he found it, D’Auria wrote.

That led her to speculate.

“This puncture wound could have been due to an adult loon’s beak as a result of its attempt to protect its chick from the eagle. A loon’s best weapon is its dagger-like bill, and it will often attack adversary loons by coming up from beneath the water’s surface with its bill straight towards the other loon’s sternum, or chest,” she wrote. “Many adult loons have several healed-over sternal punctures from fights like these.”

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The researchers found that the puncture wound was about the size of a loon’s bill, and it extended straight to the heart. No gunshot residue was present in the wound, and the loon chick had puncture marks consistent with the spacing of eagle talons. Fights between eagles and loons are becoming increasingly common as the eagle population continues to grow, she wrote, with eagles attacking baby and, sometimes, adult loons.

The attack appears to be the first recorded wherein a loon killed an eagle, an important find as wildlife biologists continue to study loons and the survival challenges they face, D’Auria wrote.

“Who would think a loon would stand a chance against such a powerful predator?”

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