A bald eagle named Challenger flies in front of and American flag before the start of a 2003 baseball game at Yankees Stadium ( AFP / Don Emmert)

False claim about eagle lifespan circulates online

Copyright AFP 2017-2022. All rights reserved.

Social media posts featuring images of bald eagles claim they can gain 30 years of life and live to age 70 by retreating to a mountain and destroying their own beaks and talons to regenerate new ones. This is false; the longest recorded lifespan for a wild bald eagle in the US was 38 years, and wildlife experts say the raptors would not survive such self-mutilation.

"By the age of 40, the eagle's claws become too long and supple, and it cannot grab its prey with it. Its beak becomes too long and curved, preventing it from eating. The feathers on its wings and chest become too thick and heavy and prevent it from flying. The eagle is now faced with a choice: either death, or a long and painful period of change, lasting 150 days," says a December 17, 2021 Facebook post.

"It flies to its nest on the top of the mountain and beats its beak against the rock for a long time until the beak breaks and comes off... Then it waits for a new beak to grow and tear its claws out. When new claws grow, the eagle pulls out its over-heavy plumage on its chest and wings... And then, after 5 months of pain and torment, with a new beak, claws and plumage, the eagle is reborn and can live for another 30 years," the post says.

Screenshot of a Facebook post take December 23, 2021


The claim -- which also appeared on Facebook in December 2021 here -- has circulated since at least 2007, when it was debunked by Snopes and others.

Longevity records kept by the US Geological Survey -- which manages a program than bands wild birds -- show the longest lifespan recorded for a US bald eagle in the wild at 38 years. For golden eagles, the longest was 31 years and eight months.

A fact sheet from the US Fish & Wildlife Service says that bald eagles -- the US national bird and a protected species -- generally live 15 to 30 years in the wild.

The nonprofit Teton Raptor Center states on its web page that bald eagles may live to over 30 years in the wild and up to 50 years in captivity. Golden eagles -- which according to the organization are more closely related to hawks -- have a similar lifespan.

Todd Katzner,  a wildlife biologist with USGS who has studied eagles for 25 years and co-edited the book "The Eagle Watchers," told AFP that the social media claim is inaccurate.

While eagles' beaks can repair themselves, "anything more than a minor injury will result in a deformation. Birds absolutely cannot regrow an entire beak," Katzner said, adding that a bird without an intact beak "can't eat normally and probably has to be fed special food. It would die in the wild."

Eagle talons are comprised of a bony core with a keratin sheath, and "if the bird loses the bony core, then the keratin won't grow back," he said. "Recovery is possible from a minor injury but not a major one like losing an entire toe/claw."

Heather Huson, a professor of animal science and director of the Cornell University Raptor Program, also dismissed the claim.

"I've never heard of eagles tearing out their own claws and beaks to extend their lifespan to 70+ years," Huson said.  "It just wouldn't make sense as those are two very important parts of adaptation for eagles to eat the things they do and survive."

Other experts also stated that eagles could not survive the ordeal described in the online posts.

"In order to successfully procure their prey, eagles need their sharp talons and to ingest their catch, they need their sharp pointed beaks to tear food into bite-sized pieces," said Lori Arent,  assistant director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. "Without talons and a beak, they simply could not survive."

Rob Bierregaard, president of the Raptor Research Foundation and a research associate at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, echoed that assessment.

"They could survive missing a couple of talons (they have 8, after all), but not without a beak," he said.