Although bald eagles are among the largest birds we see on the coast, often we see gulls and other much smaller birds chasing eagles through the sky or tormenting them on a tree branch. This seems curious, given the difference in size. While eagles are excellent hunters, according to Bald Eagles: Their Life and Behavior in North America they are not above scavenging for their meals, or stealing food from other birds or preying on them. So to ward of threats to themselves and their young, smaller birds often harass eagles and other birds of prey. The larger birds mostly ignore these attacks, rarely fighting back. The eagle’s behaviour, from scavenging, to stealing food, to ignoring attacks, led Benjamin Franklin to oppose their choice for America’s seal:
I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen him perched on some dead tree; where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him. . . . Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest.
— Benjamin Franklin in a letter to his daughter Sarah Bache
Occasionally, it would seem, the eagle doesn’t always ignore the attacks. One time while out in the dinghy, we started seeing white feathers massed on the water surface. A short distance away, we came across an eagle, tearing into what was left of a seagull clutched in its talons. That probably was just one taunt too many.