Watching a giant eagle streak out of the sky to capture a rogue drone is undeniably cool. A story has been sweeping the Internet about how the Dutch National Police are training eagles to be a new avian air force that will protect us from evil flying robots.
The idea that eagles could be turned into an efficient and effective drone-catching squadron makes a certain amount of sense. I’ve spent a lot of time observing eagles, and as any birder knows, they’re big, tough birds with big, strong talons and great eyesight.
And it’s not surprising that police forces would turn to live birds to help them capture errant drones. Other anti-drone efforts are expensive and unwieldy, such as weird guns that shoot radio waves or bigger drones that shoot nets at rogue drones.
What’s surprising is that people think using live eagles to hunt drones is a good idea. It’s not. It’s not a good idea at all.
The Netherlands-based company behind the police training video, Guard from Above, is evidently using bald eagles as its drone attackers. I give the company the benefit of the doubt that it acquired its birds legally, but for reference, bald eagles are not native to Europe, and it’s illegal in the U.S. to possess one without a permit. (The company’s website says it’s been training birds of prey for 25 years.) But I really don’t think being drafted into a robot-fighting army is in the best interest of America’s national bird.
The biggest problem is the very obvious danger to the eagles. As demonstrated by the Mythbusters crew, who are among the preeminent scientific experimenters of our time, drone blades, especially carbon fiber ones, can cause serious damage to an animal. If an eagle were to midjudge its attack, or if the drone operator were to take evasive or defense maneuvers, a bird could be struck by the blades and seriously injured or killed.
Despite Guard from Above’s claim that it is relying on birds’ “natural hunting instincts” to take out drones, bald eagles do not normally take prey out of the air in the wild. “Bald eagles are not bird predators,” says Kent Knowles, president of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, “they eat fish and carrion. Bald eagles are not falconry birds.” This type of hunting isn’t natural at all. “It’s dangerous because drones are not like anything bald eagles or other birds of prey find in nature,” Knowles says. “I don’t think they have any understanding of what drones are.”
Even if birds are well trained and are unexpectedly effective at avoiding rotors, how many eagles are we willing to risk if something goes wrong?
Seriously, bald eagles have been through enough. Bald eagles were taken off the Endangered Species List less than ten years ago, which is about 15 minutes in evolutionary time. Humans nearly wiped them out through a combination of pesticides (primarily DDT), habitat destruction, and illegal shooting. In 1963, bald eagles hit a population low in the United States of just 487 pairs. Since then they’ve battled back and are just now repopulating old territories and establishing a stable population.
So after all that, now we’re going to force them to fight flying robots? How about this for an idea: Let’s just leave eagles alone. Let’s give them some trees to perch on and some salmon to eat and just let them be. What’s next, taking cheetahs out of Africa to chase down jaywalkers? Using giraffes to peer over the border fence to look for smugglers? Wild animals belong in the wild, not in our police stations. Please let’s leave eagles alone.
This article was first published by National Geographic on 05 Feb 2016.