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Terror from above: eagle tackles deer in stunning camera trap photos

During a routine Amur tiger survey with remote camera traps in December 2011, a few photos gave biologists a shock when they revealed the stunning sight of a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) launching itself on the back of a 7-month old sika deer (Cervus nippon) and bringing down prey that outweighed it by at least seven times. Photographed in remote Far East Russia, the photos show an incredibly-rare instance of an eagle preying on a deer.

“I saw the deer carcass first as I approached the trap on a routine check to switch out memory cards and change batteries, but something felt wrong about it. There were no large carnivore tracks in the snow, and it looked like the deer had been running and then just stopped and died,” said lead author Linda Kerley of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who runs the Amur tiger camera trap project. “It was only after we got back to camp that I checked the images from the camera and pieced everything together. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Found across the northern hemisphere, golden eagles are the most widely-ranging eagles on the planet. Although big raptors, they only weigh around 9-14 pounds compared to young sika deer which weigh in at around 88-100 pounds. Despite the size difference, Kerley told NPR that indications showed that the deer was likely killed quickly. Although rare, the predation of golden eagles on deer is not wholly unheard of.

Young sika deer carcass found by Kerley. Photo by: Linda Kerley.
Young sika deer carcass found by Kerley. Photo by: Linda Kerley.

“The scientific literature is full of references to golden eagle attacks on different animals from around the world, from things as small as rabbits–their regular prey–to coyote and deer, and even one record in 2004 of an eagle taking a brown bear cub,” says co-author Jonathan Slaght with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). And the list goes even further including instances of golden eagles preying on reindeer, red deer, roe deer, pronghorn, mountain goats, saiga, and Siberian ibex. However this is the first recorded instance of a golden eagle tackling a sika deer.

“In fact, this may be the first documentation of Golden Eagle predation of any ungulate species in the Russian Far East,” the scientists write, adding that, “[since] most Golden Eagle attacks documented elsewhere have occurred in open spaces, the fact that this predation occurred in a forest was also noteworthy.”

Still such attacks are described as opportunistic and incredibly uncommon.

“I’ve been assessing deer causes of death in Russia for 18 years–this is the first time I’ve seen anything like this,” notes Kerley.

Camera trap photos in order of sequence:

Golden eagle launches itself onto deer in Lazovskii State Nature Reserve. Photo by: Linda Kerley.

Golden eagle launches itself onto deer in Lazovskii State Nature Reserve. Photo by: Linda Kerley.

Deer appears to struggle to free itself. Photo by: Linda Kerley.
Deer appears to struggle to free itself. Photo by: Linda Kerley.

The deer appears to be flagging. Photo by: Linda Kerley.
The deer appears to be flagging. Photo by: Linda Kerley.


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