Contrary to some stories you may have heard, eagles do not mate in the air. There have been a few instances of mating in the nest observed, but most often it will be on a high tree branch near the nest site. The locked talon spiral is often courtship behavior, but alternately it can be two males fighting.
“When it comes to courtship, bald eagles put the wild in wildlife. The maneuver known as the cartwheel display or death spiral—is chief among their “spectacular courtship rituals,” says wildlife ecologist David Buehler of the University of Tennessee. “The two soar up to high altitude, lock talons, and tumble and cartwheel toward Earth.” They let go before reaching the ground—except when they don’t.”*
However those death spirals aren’t always about courtship.
Like aerial arm wrestlers, male eagles grapple talon-to-talon, squawking and tumbling through the air. The birds usually break free as they fall, but occasionally their talons become locked together and the birds smash to the ground. The fights — and falls — (which can happen anytime), are especially common in late winter as the eagles prepare to mate.” **
The two male eagles pictured above were in the latter category. Found entangled and injured from fighting, one has a punctured eardrum, and the other a head trauma. Both are currently being treated at the Phoenix Wildlife Center, and we are hopeful about their future release.