Large, dive-bombing bird gives Aussie tourist a souvenir

Mike Campbell
Photo courtesy of LYNDA K. SMITH

As an Australian living on Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, Brian Hard is accustomed to peril underfoot. After all, Australia is home to crocodiles, all manner of deadly snakes and venomous spiders.

Monday afternoon, he was visited by danger from above.

Walking from the Cooper Landing Library toward the Wildman's store on the Sterling Highway just after 4 p.m., a bird he believes was an eagle swooped down and dug its talons into Hard's skull.

"It was a beautiful day and I was quite content, when all of a sudden I had this sensation of eagle grabbing on, sinking a talon into my head," he said. "When it hit me, I kind of ducked down and its trajectory took it back up. I sort of looked up and its wings were spread; I had the sensation of being shaded. Looked like a young eagle to me."

Within three strides it was over.

"Skin was actually raised off my scalp," he said. "I felt the bleeding."

Hard, who was alone at the time, said his immediate concern was a repeat attack. The bird flew off to a nearby tree, and Hard gingerly walked the 100 yards or so to the Cooper Landing home where he's been staying.

He was left with four shallow cuts in his scalp, which were cleaned. Professional medical assistance wasn't required.

"I was concerned how much bleeding it was," he said. "I think the shock was what got me."

Eagle attacks are exceptionally rare.

"I am skeptical," said Phil Schempf, a raptor expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau who's studied eagles for 30 years. "Eagles tend to be pretty wimpy. I can count on one finger the number of eagle attacks I've seen. I wonder if he was mixing up his birds and it was a goshawk. In your face, a goshawk looks pretty big."

There are numerous accounts of goshawks attacking people who approach their nests too closely.

Hard acknowledged he wasn't absolutely certain the bird was a young eagle. The only reason he talked publicly about it is that he thinks locals, especially children, should beware.

"I can't be certain," he said. "Here I'm in a state of shock, and I went into survival mode."

As Alaska's largest resident bird of prey, bald eagles can weigh up to 14 pounds with a wingspan reaching 7 1/2 feet. They lack the species' distinctive white plumage until reaching about 5 years. Southcentral eagles often nest in old cottonwood trees near water, where they prey largely on fish.

Golden eagles are somewhat smaller. And a goshawk wingspan is only about 4 feet.

"Behavior like that is atypical, even if we go into their nest sites," said Schempf, who estimated he's banded hundreds of eagles without incident. "A golden would be more aggressive than a bald, but even adults get upset, but not really aggressive."

So why would any bird attack an Australian tourist? Hard has a theory.

"Somebody suggested I kind of looked like a rabbit from the sky," said the tourist who wears a gray ponytail and has been in Alaska 10 weeks. "I can sort of understand why it happened to me."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.