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Bald Eagle Attacks a Swimming Deer

A fawn took a swim and an eagle saw a snack.

Video: Julie Smith via Storyful

A homeowner in northeastern Wisconsin who likes to sit on her patio in the early mornings got quite a surprise one morning when she saw an unexpected sight.

Julie Smith was delighted to see a fawn swimming in Lake Noquebay. She got out her phone to record the event when she caught something relatively unexpected on camera instead—a bald eagle swooping down to grab a tasty meal.

"I see amazing things when I get up in the morning, and I thought I would show this to my grandkids to show them what they miss when they sleep late in the morning,” Smith says. Although at first she thought she'd be showing them a cute fawn video, not a rare bald eagle attack.

On the video, the fawn can be heard calling out as the eagle eventually wins the battle and drags the lifeless deer onto land. Smith notes that the bald eagle went straight for the heart when it started feeding on its prize. (See rare video of an ocelot catching a macaw.)

It may look shocking, but is this behavior unusual? Experts have weighed in, and they say not really.

Bald eagles are opportunistic hunters, says Steve Hein, the director of the Center for Wildlife Education at Georgia Southern University. “Bald eagles go after waterfowl, fish, and other small mammals. As apex predators, they will do whatever they need to do to survive,” he says.

Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says this deer was swimming right where bald eagles like to hunt. “They typically catch fish that are right at the surface,” he says. “They are constantly looking for things swimming near the surface of the water.”

Bald eagles hunt fish in lakes all of the time and it doesn’t garner as much attention from people, but eagles will take down almost any sort of prey they want. Birds of prey like falcons and eagles have been known to take down full-sized deer in some parts of the world.

Smith says a female deer that she assumes was the fawn’s mother came back to look for it. The eagle, on the other hand, came back in the following days to feast on its kill—they commonly will scavenge their own kills and other carcasses.

While bald eagles don’t typically feed on fawns, it is mostly due to the fact they are hidden away in the woods. This fawn put itself in the open by swimming, which is somewhat unusual. Smith says her husband heard from a neighbor a similar attack occured in their backyard, perhaps by the same eagle.

Even though it may look shocking, says Jason Ward at the Atlanta Audubon Society, eagles need to eat. “Many birds of prey fail to live past their first birthday and die of starvation. Every meal is a special one.”

Ward also mentions that as alarming as it was to witness, he is glad the person filming the video did not intervene. “People need to remember that native birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and it's a federal crime to harass one.”