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For Eagles, Spring Means Courtship Ritual Called ‘Cartwheeling’

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Love is in the air. For ducks and geese, it’s easy to find a safe space and partner up. Eagles have a slightly more complicated ritual called cartwheeling.

The courtship involves a male and female eagle flying into the thermos where they grasp talons then glide in dramatic fashion back down, then break apart when they’re nearing the ground. Afterwards they go to the nest to mate.

It’s a scene we’ll see more frequently this time of year.

“They’re certainly congregating and starting all those courtship behaviors and mating rituals because it’s spring,” explained Lori Naumann, a nongame wildlife specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The eagles aren’t only seeking partners, but trees to nest and land and water to hunt for food. Often, eagles of the same sex will fight for territory or mates.

“From what my neighbor said, his wife saw them in the air. It looked like they were fighting and it looked like they just plummeted to the earth. They just crashed to the ground,” Theresa Link said. “We thought it was two males fighting over a female, but then someone said maybe this was a male and a female that were actually mating.”

She was right. The pursuit of a female eagle quickly became the talk of her Shakopee neighborhood Monday night. Two male eagles got locked up in the air, then tumbled to the ground. Neither would let go.

“Everyone was feeling kind of bad, clearly they looked like they were in some sort of distress,” Link said. “We saw their wings flutter occasionally, but they were just locked on each other and they didn’t make any sound.”

The DNR says when birds are tangled on the ground, you shouldn’t intervene. A lot of times they’ll figure it out for themselves.

But do call in an expert, like the Raptor Center to come help, which is what neighbors did.

Four hours after the birds first fell to the ground, the University of Minnesota Raptor Center came to take them away. Photos from the neighbors show the powerful talons pierced the eagles near their beaks and feet. The veterinarians at the Raptor Center said the eagles are in good condition with no broken wings or bones. They did suffer some soft tissue wounds which will heal.

Typically after being treated at the Raptor Center, the birds will be released back into the wild.

Naumann explained a violent battle for a mate isn’t unusual, “If they’re battling in the air there’s high emotions involved, there’s a lot of violence, you know. It’s a fight for survival.”

Contrary to urban legend, eagles can release a tight grip from their talons. In this particular case, the birds were likely not letting go in fear the other eagle would then attack it.

Minnesota’s bald eagle population continues to grow. In 2005, the state located 872 active nests. Many people are spotting the majestic birds farther south in the state and in urban areas. Naumann said if that trend continues, we’ll be seeing more eagles both cartwheeling and battling.

Along with mating this time of year, many animals are starting to be born. The DNR’s eagle cam is back up and running. They think the eggs could hatch this weekend. You can watch the eaglet’s progress here.

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