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There is a memorable line spoken by a newspaper reporter in an old western: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

That quote is relevant in light of the latest iteration of an oft-repeated story in the outdoors world: That of the eagle’s nest that was full of pet collars.

This time, the tale was posted in the comments of an online article in early January about an eagle that was said to have carried away an 8-pound bichon frise from a backyard in Pennsylvania.

“I heard a story about a tree that fell with an eagle’s nest in it,” one reader posted. “People said there were 21 little collars in the nest!”

Legend or fact?

If you search Google, you can find plenty of versions of the yarn, all with slightly different details. In one, a wildlife official in Wisconsin supposedly discovered 27 pet collars in a collapsed eagle’s nest. Another report had the incident in Whatcom County, Washington. And in a third, recounted in 2010 by birding columnist Jim Williams in the Star Tribune, the nest was in Hennepin County, and 51 dog and cat collars were found.

At the time, Williams hinted that he was suspicious, and couldn’t determine if the story was legitimate. And today, neither can the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn. The staff, however, is plenty familiar with the tale.

“It’s the most common story we hear from visitors,” said Ed Hahn, the center’s marketing manager. “But the number of collars changes, and the story is always conveyed secondhand — they heard it from someone else and so on.”

“We’ve often asked for follow-up about the details of the claims because we’d like to know,” he said. “To date, no one has ever come back with more information to share with us.”

Conclude that the story is simply an amusing chestnut, and end the discussion? But there’s one issue. Every time it’s repeated, the legend seems to stoke a fear of raptors among pet owners that their fur babies are going to get carried off by birds of prey.

And, as these things go, the legend seem to matter more than the facts.

More examples:

In one online recounting of the dog-collar story, the writer was convinced of its authenticity because he was sure that his cat, suddenly reluctant to venture outside, had been attacked by eagles that had taken up residence in his yard. He now wondered about the safety of his dog, even though he opined that it was “doubtful” an eagle would pick up the canine because it weighed “well over 50 pounds.”

He was doubtful — but he wasn’t ruling it out.

Another comes from a Facebook post early this year that included video of a great gray owl snatching up a muskrat in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog.

“My God!” one commenter wrote. “Could an owl pick up my little 10-pound dog? I never believed people that warned me about this … but now I am concerned about our hikes. ”

Not viable targets

Julie Ponder, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center in St. Paul, knows the stories and, while perhaps dubious, chooses her words carefully on the subject. Ponder prefers to describe questionable bird/pet encounters as “highly unlikely” rather than “impossible.”

The bottom line, Ponder said, is that raptors “can’t pick up and carry weights that are a significant proportion of theirs. Do we know exactly what that is? No, but it’s probably under a quarter of their weight.”

Given that eagles tip the scales at seven to 12 pounds, anything more than about three pounds would probably not be a viable target for even the largest bird. In addition, Ponder said, most eagles would generally prefer to catch a fish or scavenge a roadside kill over tangling with Rover.

Ponder said if bird of prey is “hugely starved” it might exhibit behavior that is out of the norm. So anyone who owns a canine of slim build may not be automatically paranoid if caution is exercised with a pet.

“If you have a small dog or a cat, and you want to let them out at dusk when some raptors are hunting, it’s OK to be cautious, to stay out there with them,” Ponder said.

Still, she added, “I wouldn’t worry too much about a bald eagle in the middle of the day, and it’s simply unlikely an eagle would bother a dog on a leash or a dog with a human nearby.”

And what about the dog collar story?

“Even if it happened,” Ponder said, “it doesn’t mean that an eagle killed and took up that many pets. It may have been that coyotes got the pets, did some feeding and an eagle cleaned it up.” (Yes, coyotes can be a threat to small animals. But that’s a story for another day.)

In the end, the recent story of the bichon frise abduction in Pennsylvania is a notable illustration of how these stories can get exaggerated.

The original report by the Associated Press quoted an eyewitness who watched an eagle snatch the 8-pound bichon. The story was picked up by media outlets around the country (and the world), and the facts quickly became fuzzy.

Because the dog was found alive four miles from its home, one headline writer who may have just scanned the copy wrote that the bird had picked up the dog and carried it that entire distance.

While the article itself said it wasn’t clear how far the eagle carried the dog, four miles is a lot closer to impossible than unlikely.

But that’s the spinoff with these stories.

It’s how legend becomes fact.

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at jmoravec@mac.com.