I’m smart enough to know I should never shake hands with a Bald Eagle because their talons have a killer grip.
I saw their fierce grip on display this week, playing out in the sky several hundred feet above me.
I’m not far from the Hudson River near the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge in Kingston, New York, and a bird with a massive wingspan catches my eye.
I see the white head and tail, and my mouth drops, as most people do when seeing Bald Eagles in the wild.
The bird’s rapid wingbeats indicate the eagle is powering to its destination, carrying a red squirrel in both its talons.
Probably a feast for its hungry eaglets.
My Talons are Fiercer Than Yours
While I’m enjoying the sight of this beautiful raptor, I see another large bird coming into view.
This time it’s a Red-tailed Hawk dive-bombing toward the eagle.
Now I’m watching this epic struggle play out above me.
Suddenly the hawk attacks the eagle in an attempt to grab its dinner, and the eagle lets go of the squirrel in its left talon while keeping a firm grip of it in its right talon.
Then with its left leg free, the eagle uses it as a weapon striking the hawk and pushing it from its path.
One powerful push and the hawk was on course.
The hawk circles back for a second attempt, but never gets into an aggressive position to grab the squirrel.
The Bald Eagle emerges triumphant and powers on with his squirrel feast.
Fierce Gripping Power of an Eagle’s Talons
And it got me thinking about the fierce gripping power of a raptor’s talons.
A raptor’s feet are incredible hunting tools.
The word raptor comes from the Latin word “rapere,” which means to seize by force.
Eagle and hawks both have two giant talons on their first and seconds toes, giving them a secure grip on their prey.
Prey that they like to eat alive.
The power of an eagle’s grip comes from its leg muscles, tendons, and bones.
When an eagle contracts the tendons on its legs, the muscles close the bird’s talons.
The tendons are contained in tendon sheaths, and both the tendons and tendon sheaths have tiny ridges.
When an eagle’s tendon contracts, ridges on the tendon and sheaths interlock, creating a “ratchet” effect enabling the bird to keep its talons closed over long periods while subduing large prey.
So an eagles grip is to be feared.
Raptor with the Strongest Grip
According to scientists at HawkQuest, an environmental education nonprofit in Colorado, a Bald Eagles gripping strength is ten times stronger than the average grip of an adult human hand.
A Bald Eagle can exert upwards of 400 pounds per square inch (psi).
Googling a raptor’s gripping strength, I find unscientific research focusing on five bird species with the strongest talon crush rates, and it includes some of the fiercest raptors in the world.
The data indicate psi gripping strength varies among raptors, but the number is the average from several references.
These numbers are not scientifically proven, but help illustrate a point about the power of a Bald Eagle’s grip.
Great Horned Owls have a 500 psi.
Philippine Eagles have a psi higher than 500.
Harpy Eagles have a 503-598 psi.
Gold Eagles have a 400-791 psi.
Bald Eagles have a reported psi up to 823, though HawkQuest notes it’s more likely a Bald Eagle’s grip pressure is between 300 to 400 psi.
Conclusion: Never Arm Wrestle a Bald Eagle
So in the bird world, the hawk I mentioned earlier is not prying the squirrel from the Bald Eagle’s powerful clutches.
The eagle is not letting go of that squirrel until it is ready to let go.
It was fabulous seeing the natural world play out above me and using it as the inspiration to learning more about the gruesome power of a Bald Eagle’s talons.
Just another reason to marvel at these majestic birds when you see them in the wild and to value and protect Bald Eagles and other wildlife at all costs.
Project the birds, and you protect the earth! Let’s all coexist.
Interesting article. For me, the eagle is a symbol of strength and courage. I like the hunting picture. The eagle looks very fast and impressive
Hi Michael. We agree with you. The eagle is a symbol of strength and courage. It’s an impressive bird and seeing one in the wild is a privilege you never forget!
How is it that a Bald Eagle’s grip can far exceed that of the larger and more powerful Harpy and Golden Eagles?
Hi Joel. We were thinking the same thing when incorporating the data into the story.
There are many sources out there, and some have a limited scientific basis. According to HawkQuest, it’s more likely that the Bald Eagle has a grip pressure between 300 to 400 psi.
Regardless of the psi, those are serious talons!
Golden Eagles are fierce for sure, especially the females – and there have been abnormally large examples of all these species – but generally, the Bald eagle averages from 1-1/2 to 2 times the size of the Golden… weights of around 9.2Kg vs 4.5Kg or so. That’s the data – but I think the Golden is as powerful, and perhaps more powerful – but larger, she is not – not from my data-gathering anyway.
We agree. The Golden Eagles are incredible with their size and wing span. We were citing stats from scientists at HawkQuest. No matter what raptor…they all have incredible gripping strength.