A bald eagle is an intimidating bird, to say the least: With a wingspan of 2.1 to 2.4 metres (7 to 8 feet) and a mass that may exceed 6.8 kilograms (15 lbs.), this New World sea eagle shares honours with the golden eagle as North America’s second-heftiest raptor, after the substantially bigger but rather gentler California condor.

Heavyweight size combined with a great curved beak and heavy talons make the bald eagle – a national symbol of the United States –an apex predator, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune from insult and harassment by other birds, including far littler ones.

Earlier this month, photographer Bill Combs Jr. snapped some dramatic photos at the Cobleskill Reservoir in upstate New York of a male red-winged blackbird “hitching a ride” on the back of a flying bald eagle toting a freshly caught fish.

Image © Bill Combs Jr.
Image © Bill Combs Jr.
Image © Bill Combs Jr.

While at first glance it might look as if the songbird’s taking a mid-flight breather on the broad shoulders of the eagle, this is actually surely another demonstration of the red-winged blackbird’s famously feisty territoriality.

Males of this blackbird species – characterised by their bold crimson wing patches and their liquid song, a classic part of the springtime soundtrack in marshes across much of North America –fiercely defend their breeding and nesting turf not only from rivals but also any and all critters they deem potential threats. That can include just about anything, from crows and ravens to large mammals (bumbling human beings very much included). 

Birds of prey can definitely fall into the crosshairs of defensive red-winged blackbirds. Indeed, the recently snapped photos are far from the first that show redwing strikes on America's national bird: Only last year, for example, a similar picture documented the behaviour in Minnesota.

As those victimised eagles experienced, the mobbing swoops and dive-bombs of red-winged blackbirds can definitely involve physical contact. It might seem especially brave for a redwing to take on a raptor such as a bald eagle, but the chance of the latter pulling off a counterattack on its smaller, more manoeuvrable assailant – which, furthermore, enjoys a bit of the element of surprise –are low. An eagle’s main course of action under the circumstances is to grit its teeth (err, beak) and get out of dodge – that is, the redwing’s fiercely defended airspace.

It’s worth pointing out that drawing fire from a spunky blackbird is – at least sort of – a bald eagle getting a taste of its own medicine. While effective predators in their own right of fish, waterfowl, and other diverse prey (including the occasional deer fawn), bald eagles are also eager kleptoparasites, bullying other hunters such as osprey, herons, hawks, and river otters – not to mention other bald eagles – to pirate their catches.

Top header image: Jeff S. Photoart/Flickr