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.