Monday, October 18, 2010

When Raptors Attack: Some North Country Stories

Unusual stories often catch my eye while researching topics of interest. A recent example drew me in—the long-ago story of a California baby left lying in the grass while, nearby, the mother performed gardening or other chores. An eagle swooped in and snatched up the baby, leading to a battle royale between the family and the eagle. There were several stories of that type, and it didn’t always end well for the baby.

I involuntarily maintain a healthy skepticism, but have to be careful about letting it completely take over. A little digging turned up a few interesting North Country tales of a similar bent. Some contain embellishments common to the writing style of the day, and others strain credulity, but several of them are likely based on real confrontations.

After all, odd things do happen. While sitting in my high school classroom many decades ago, right in the middle of Champlain village, I saw a hawk (a red-tail was my guess) plummet to the earth at great velocity, disappearing into the brush. My assumption was that the bird died on impact, but perhaps a minute or so later, it once more became airborne, a cat dangling from its talons as it flew in clear view past the large windows. If there hadn’t been other witnesses, I’m not sure anyone would have believed me.

Four of my own Adirondack experiences with large birds stand out in memory. While bushwhacking atop one of the inner ridges of Silver Lake Mountain (near Hawkeye), I was once dive-bombed by ravens for a half hour as I lay in the brush, amazed at how loud and relentless they were, and how close they came to me.

While canoeing in the middle of Franklin Falls Pond, I was similarly harassed by two bald eagles that repeatedly swooped overhead. A little scary, yes, but absolutely thrilling. Another time, an angry nesting goose disapproved of a canoe innocently passing by 100 feet away.

The fourth incident took place on a calm section of the Saranac River. It’s hard to believe that an eagle could be somewhat distracted, but that’s the only explanation I have for what occurred. Where the waterway was about thirty feet wide, the eagle flew several feet above the stream, coming directly towards the canoe. I expected it to turn away, but it seemed to be looking from side to side, unaware that I was directly in its path.

Within no more than twenty feet, it suddenly became aware of my presence and pulled up sharply, the “whooshing” sound from its wings loud in my ears. It was a large bird, but from such close range, it naturally appeared enormous. The entire incident lasted only about 20 or 30 seconds, but it will stay with me forever.

Taking all of that into consideration, I reviewed some interesting regional confrontations between humans and birds (veracity unverified).

In 1888, at Brier Hill (St. Lawrence County), a bald eagle was said to have attacked seven-year-old George Richards (he was actually ten). George used a stick to defend himself until older brother Berton, 20, drove the eagle off. Bert later baited a steel trap with newborn calves that had died. He succeeded in capturing the bird, which was held by the Richards family for display.

In 1893, a Bellmont (Franklin County) farmhand working for Frank Winkley was on horseback, rounding up the cows, when he was attacked by two eagles. He was knocked to the ground, where the birds continued the assault. The farm dog came to his aid, and he eventually managed to club one of the birds and capture it. According to the report, the golden eagle’s wingspan was seven feet. It was kept in Winkley’s barn as a curiosity.

Predatory raids on farm fowl were once common. A dramatic case was reported in Chaumont (northwest of Watertown) in 1903 on the farm of Charles Graham. A hen hawk (any hawk that preys on poultry) grabbed a large Plymouth Rock hen, but about 20 feet above the ground, the hen broke free and landed at Graham’s feet. The hawk followed, knocking the farmer down, gashing his face and neck and pecking at his eyes. Graham stood to defend himself, but the bird continued the attack. Finally, the farmer grabbed a shovel, and the hawk departed.

Also in 1903, John Sullivan of Jay (Essex County) was set upon by an eagle, finally driving it off after suffering lacerations to his face. In 1904 came a report from the Bowditch cottage on Upper Chateaugay Lake (Clinton County), where caretaker Frank Nicholson battled two eagles that attempted to make off with some chickens. One of the birds managed to sink its talons into Nicholson’s leg, but he eventually succeeded in “dispatching them.”

In 1905, near McKenzie Pond just east of Saranac Lake, Frank Perks and George Walton were walking in the woods when Perks struck a tree trunk with an axe he was carrying. Suddenly, “an immense eagle flew down from the tree and attacked Perks savagely.” With the help of Walton, Perks suffered no more than a torn hat before the eagle was driven off.

In 1909, a Pitcairn (St. Lawrence County, near Harrisville) farmer, Josiah Almtree, offered a dramatic tale of battling a powerful eagle that had lately been harassing his sheep. The victim this time was Almtree’s daughter, who was carried off but then dropped “unhurt on the roof of a little building near the barn.” Almtree managed a shot at the bird, which escaped. Of course, “unhurt” wasn’t possible, but I’ll beg the Fox News defense here … “We report, you decide.”

Most such stories are quite old, but a more recent one (though still over 50 years past) occurred in Ausable Forks in 1957. Young Jimmie Camire, while playing with friends, was attacked by a hawk. The bird grabbed his shoulder, but he broke free. Under renewed attack, Jimmie’s shouts brought his brother, Butch, and Jeff Hewston, to the rescue. They had been cutting small trees nearby, and used an axe to kill the hawk, which they said had a wingspan of 43 inches.

Not all regional fowl attacks came from above. In 1908, Gouverneur’s Louis Boulet, Sr., owned a particularly raucous Rhode Island Red, a breed that can be incredibly aggressive. (They’ve been known to kill snakes, cats, foxes, and small dogs.) The big rooster’s frequent attacks made it clear the farmer was not welcome in his own hen house. Egged on by frequent muggings and occasional blood loss, Boulet decided this chicken’s goose was cooked.

Healthy skepticism can be valuable, but before deciding how feasible some of those old stories might be, check out some “eagle attack” videos on YouTube. Be forewarned: several are graphic. Some are simply amazing, demonstrating the willingness of large birds to mix it up with creatures of all sizes, even striking a black bear in a tree.

Photo Top: An attack by a “domesticated” eagle.

Photo Middle: The Bald Eagle’s formidable beak.

Photo Bottom: Eagle talons.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

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Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.





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