Why Did The Eagle Land On Seattle Mariners Pitcher James Paxton? | @GrrlScientist

Thanks to a remarkable bird, Thursday afternoon’s game was one of the most unusual hometown openers in the history of major league baseball

by GrrlScientist for Forbes | @GrrlScientist

Note: this piece was a Forbes Editor’s Pick.

Adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in flight, Ontario, Canada.
(Credit:
Peter K Burian / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Whilst the national anthem was being performed for Thursday afternoon’s home opener between the Minnesota Twins and the Seattle Mariners, a falconry-trained bald eagle unexpectedly tried to land on Mariners’ starting pitcher, James Paxton.

As you can see in the video, Mr. Paxton was standing alone in left field with his cap held to his chest, when the eagle circled him several times before attempting to land on his right shoulder.

“I kind of ducked it so it wouldn’t fly into my face. It was, I think, trying to stand on my back,” Mr. Paxton said later. “And then I thought, ‘OK, if I can stand up slowly, maybe it’ll just rest on my shoulder.’ But as I stood up, he kind of fell off my back a little bit and was kind of clawing to try to get back up on my shoulder. But then as I stood straight up, it fell back onto the ground.”

Mr. Paxton, a left-handed pitcher, was not hurt by the eagle’s sharp talons.

“The talons, I don’t think punctured me or anything,” Mr. Paxton said. “They were kind of sharp on my back. But I don’t think I have any scratches.”

“The sharp points on the tip of [the eagle’s] talons are always blunted before his performances at major sporting events,” a spokesperson for the American Eagle Foundation said in a statement. The American Eagle Foundation, who trains and cares for the eagle, is a non-profit conservation and public education organization dedicated to supporting rehabilitation, recovery, and breeding programs for bald eagles and other raptors.

In the fly-over, the eagle, whose name is “Challenger”, appeared to mistake the pitcher, whose nickname is “Big Maple” (and who was the tallest thing standing in an otherwise empty playing field), for one of his handlers.

“It was not the first time I’ve seen a bald eagle,” Mr. Paxton said. “But it’s the first time I had one try to land on me. That was interesting. It was coming right for me. I’m like, ‘the guy is over there and I’m not eagle guy.’ But I guess this eagle just got confused.”

Challenger was meant to fly across the stadium as part of the opening ceremony, and land on the arm of his waiting handler near a large American flag.

“Challenger simply thought the pitcher was one of his handlers standing near the large U.S. flag in the outfield ready to catch him and give him a piece of salmon,” the American Eagle Foundation spokesperson said.

Challenger is a 28-year-old male bald eagle. The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is a large bird of prey found throughout North America (and is especially common in the Seattle area, where several pairs nest). It is one of several species of sea eagles, which live near vast bodies of open water that have plenty of old-growth trees available nearby for nesting and roosting.

Challenger is the veteran of more than 350 free flight demonstrations at collegiate sporting events and major sports stadiums, arenas, and ballrooms, and has made hundreds more appearances and flights at schools and veterans’ homes. Some of his most widely-viewed performances include 12 World Series games, five BCS National Championships and dozens of other high-profile events. This was Challenger’s first ever public lapse in judgment.

Challenger is a wild-born eagle who was discovered after being blown from his Louisiana nest during a storm in the spring of 1989 when he was just a few weeks old. He was rescued and hand-fed by some kind-hearted people, but as a result, he ended up imprinting on humans. After being transferred to the Audubon Zooin New Orleans, he was later moved to Scottsboro, Alabama, so he could be hacked and released on Guntersville Lake when he was capable of flight at 12–13 weeks old. Several attempts to release the young eagle into the wild were unsuccessful because he never realized that he is an eagle, and so never learned to feed himself, and nearly perished as a result. After the third failed release attempt, the young bird was placed into the care of the American Eagle Foundation. They named him Challenger to honor the crew of the space shuttle, Challenger, who were killed when it disintegrated shortly after launch.

Mr. Paxton’s apparent aplomb as Challenger struggled to land on his shoulder is admirable. As an ornithologist, I’ve come to expect the unexpected from people who are suddenly confronted by any flying bird — especially a bird as large as an eagle. For example, according to my sources, Challenger almost fell victim to a man wielding a baseball bat at the culmination of his third, failed, release attempt before the overly-friendly bird was rescued by a nearby observer. Although adult male bald eagles are roughly 25% smaller than adult females, they still are sizeable birds, with a wing span between 1.8 and 2.3 m (5.9 and 7.5 ft) and mass between 3 and 6.3 kg (6.6 and 13.9 lb).

“I wasn’t going to run,” Mr. Paxton said later after the game. “I figured I’m not going to outrun an eagle, so we might as well just see what happens.”

Bald eagle, Challenger, takes flight during the Bald Eagle Recovery and Final Delisting ceremony held at the Jefferson Memorial, June 28, 2007, as Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne (right) stands with his hand over his heart.
(Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Molly A. Burgess, USN / public domain.)

The bald eagle is an Endangered Species Act success story: the species almost disappeared from much of the United States decades ago mainly due to the effects of the agricultural pesticide, DDT, which causes eggshells to become too thin to support the weight of an incubating parent. After the bald eagle was added to the federal Endangered Species List, and DDT was banned for agricultural use in the United States in 1972, the species has been recovering so successfully that it was removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2007.

And as for Mr. Paxton, although he did pitch five strong innings, the hometown team, the Twins, prevailed 4–2.


Originally published at Forbes on 8 April 2018.

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