Beaks of Eagles

The beaks of Bald Eagles are shaped like carpet knives, a fearsome hook to rend and tear. They need such a formidable tool to feed their unrelenting hunger. Almost anything is food for an eagle—ducks and geese, snowshoe hares, kittiwakes, seal and sea otter pups, starved deer and dead whales, road-kills and gut piles, fish kills, the afterbirth of livestock, garbage from town dumps and fish offal from processing plants—all grist for the eagle’s gut.

Apparently even the rain makes them hungry. At least it increases their metabolic rate as measured by oxygen consumption. Don’t ask who thought to measure an eagle’s breath in the rain. Yet an eagle’s bones are less than half the weight of its feathers. Ironic that hollow bones and feathers should encompass such ravenous hunger.

Benjamin Franklin’s low opinion of Bald Eagles is well known. He didn’t think them worthy of being named our national symbol. He thought them carrion eaters, scavengers, and pirates which of course they are—notorious pirates. They will harass a falcon or osprey until they surrender their prey, then take for it themselves. Immature eagles often plunder even their own kind. It takes skilled practice to earn a living legitimately; young eagles are short on both.

Their natural history is full of ironies. They are devoted, mating for life, but after the death of their mate they will take another, sometimes within hours. They will ferociously defend their nest against any threat but abandon it to human intrusion. Disturbance by humans is the single greatest factor in their reproductive failure. (If eagles had a mythology, Lucifer would look very much like us.) And if a nestling falls to the ground, its parents will continue feeding it in place until it’s fledged but one nestling will often kill another in competition for food.

They also practice one of the most spectacular mating rituals found in nature. Male and female Bald Eagles will sometimes lock talons and, with wings outstretched, fall cartwheeling through the sky, almost falling to the earth before releasing their embrace. It is a magnificent and maybe superfluous display. To quote Robinson Jeffers’ poem The Excesses of God.

"Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain…"

In a nation governed by greed, a nation that has enshrined profit as a religious value but one also capable of astonishing acts of compassion and self-sacrifice, perhaps we chose our national symbol more wisely than Benjamin Franklin realized—a symbol to represent both the best and the worst of us.

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4 thoughts on “Beaks of Eagles”

  1. Do you know if the following is true? When an eagle reaches the age of 50 (approximately), his beak begins to freeze shut, and he can no longer eat. Some give up and die, but some find a cave or cleft in the rock where water is present. The old eagle goes into the cave and beats his beak on a rock until it is broken off. The eagle drinks water for 40 days until it grows a new beak. The eagle then pulls its old feathers out and an oil sack grows and is filled with oil (over the heart). The eagle then breaks the oil sack with the new beak and spreads the oil over his body. Beautiful new golden feathers grow in, and the eagle is renewed. The eagle’s body is also strengthened through this process. The regenerated eagle is then able to fly higher than it ever could before and see better than it could before.

  2. Eyries

    I have learned that the less I pay attention, the more often I am pleasantly suprised. Raymond JusticeYesterday as we set out for a morning walk, we had not even gotten out of the small parking lot at American Camp

  3. This myth has many variations, all of them ornithologically inaccurate. In some versions, it is a tale of inspiration, usually on the theme of “change”. In others, it is a bald retread of the myth of the Phoenix.
    If this holds meaning for you, keep the meaning, but don’t mistake meaning for truth.

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