Thursday, August 05, 2010
It started with a simple observation. When I checked the sheep herd one afternoon, I flushed a golden eagle from the top of the hill above them. A few days later it happened again, and then again. Not every day, but nearly every day. It happened in the morning, afternoon, and evening – whatever time of day I approached the herd. The guardian dogs became accustomed to the eagle, and didn’t erupt in alarm when the bird took flight. Lambing was long past, and the eagle did not seem to be a threat to the herd, but still it was there, perched nearby.
I moved from my sheep camp back to my house, and began driving out to check the herd every day, and soon began to look for the eagle as I searched out the herd. I drove along a ridge, coming up on the eagle from the backside, and by its presence would know that my herd was grazing down below.
I gradually began to notice that as the herd moved, the eagle flew along out in front, so it was always ahead of the sheep as the herd moved. I sat on the hillside one afternoon as the herd moved down a long draw in front of me, and watched the eagle fly back and forth, perched on one side of the draw, then flying further down the draw to perch on the opposite side, watching the herd as it moved. That’s when it dawned on me: The golden eagle was using the herd’s movement to aid its hunt for a meal. One of the guardian dogs uses a similar hunting technique.
The adult female Akbash Luv’s Girl often hunts jackrabbits. When the herd is on the move, Luv’s Girl walks along with the front line of the herd because as the herd moves, it flushes jackrabbits. The dog had learned from experience that moving with the front of the herd would result in the displacement of jackrabbits, and she often was able to run down and kill these rabbits after they flushed from their hiding places.
I’m not positive that I’m right about what the golden is doing, because I haven’t actually seen it take a jackrabbit from near the herd. But I’ll keep watching, hoping I get to witness a successful hunt, and that my presence isn’t too much of a disruption.
Watching a golden eagle live in such close association with the sheep herd has been an interesting experience for this shepherd. At another time of year, and perhaps under different circumstances or a different place, I might dread the presence of a golden eagle nearby because of the threat it could pose to my herd, and to my livelihood. But not this time, at this place, under these circumstances. Instead, our golden has become somewhat of a welcome presence, a rangeland sentinel.