Even the largest living eagle will have trouble carrying a human child, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try. In this photo taken at Australia’s Alice Springs Desert Park last week, a massive wedge-tailed eagle swoops down to bury its talons in a young boy’s sweatshirt. According to eyewitnesses, the eagle was part of a bird show hosted by the park called “Eagle Encounters.” The eagle grabbed at the boy’s hood and was unable to lift him, so it flew back to its handlers. Experts at the park suspect that something had confused the bird into thinking it was either hunting or in danger. Either way, the bird as been removed from the show pending an investigation.
“The bird then flew over the crowd and tried to grab on to a young boy’s head,” Keenan Lucas, who was also at the show, told NT News. “He screamed, the mother was distraught, and the presenters wrapped up the show very quickly. It looked as if the bird tried to pick him up like a small animal and take off with him.”
Wedge-tailed eagles can have a wingspan of up to 9 feet and have been known to prey on animals as large as kangaroos. They are the largest bird of prey in Australia, following the extinction of the near-mythical Haast’s eagle, a bird so large that experts believed it once may have preyed on humans. However, wedge-tailed eagles are vastly smaller, and incidents like this are rare. Park officials say the boy suffered only superficial injuries from the “attack.” Judging from the size of those talons, this is very fortunate indeed.
“Once they decide to really go after something, they have a strong grip, it’s very difficult to intervene,” John Parks, a professor of animal science at Cornell University, told the National Geographic.
Parks explained that trained eagles, such as this one, almost never hunt for themselves and are generally less inclined to target an audience as food. Especially since even wild eagles rarely try to make an attempt on humans. However, eagles are creatures of instinct, and what happened here may be as simple as the eagle making a mistake.
“Instinctively they are carnivorous animals that are looking for something to eat, or defending themselves from something that may be a threat,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Wild eagles have been known to carry large prey off—such as sheep and other big game—but a human is almost unheard of. In 2012, a group of Montreal students created a fake video of an eagle lifting a toddler off the ground, but such a phenomenon is nonexistent in the wild. Experts say that while some species are strong enough to carry a toddler, the birds don’t generally consider humans as prey.