Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Dead Eagle

Fall'n as he is, this king of birds still seems
Like royalty in ruins. Though his eyes
Are shut, that look undazzled on the sun,
He was the sultan of the sky, and earth
Paid tribute to his eyry
—Thomas Campbell
Last week, when I got up one morning, my son pointed through the window to our backyard where a very large bird lay dead in the snow beneath our Douglas fir. It was a bald eagle.

I threw on my coat, shoved my feet into my snow boots and hastened to where this magnificent creature lay stiff in a bed of white snow, spattered with crimson from his beak. I caught my breath then let out a deep sigh. There was no sign of a death struggle. He’d fallen from the tree above (where several eagles typically roosted) and died…quietly. He was a large bird and I might have suspected that he’d simply passed on from old age had it not been for that bloody spray. The night before had been very cold, below 10ÂșC and I’d heard that food was scarce for birds this winter. My neighbour’s daughter, who volunteered for OWL—a wildlife rehabilitation and research centre—was able to tell us that the eagle was probably female and had likely died from internal injuries sustained in a fight—probably over food.

Bald eagles are a type of sea eagle that diverged from the African vulture lineage only a few million years ago. Its scientific name is Hallaeetus leucocephalus, which means "sea eagle with a white head."

Bald eagles typically live 15 to 20 years, although birds as old as 30 years have been documented. Females tend to be slightly larger than males, measuring 34-37 inches, with a wingspan of 79-90 inches. Immature bald eagles start out brown and white, with stark, black bills. Then, as the bird matures, adult plumage develops. A bald eagle is considered mature at 4-5 years of age.

Bald eagles live in large nests in tall trees, usually close to water. A typical nest runs 5-feet in diameter. Because the bald eagle returns to the same nest year after year, adding on to the nest, it can get as big as10-feet in diameter. Bald eagles typically mate for life and can often be found traveling in pairs. The female eagle lays 1-3 eggs and the male and female share the responsibility of raising the young.

Eagles possess keen eyesight. They are able to soar great distances by using rising warm air currents or thermals. The eagle fans its tail feathers to help steer and maintain balance, like a rudder. It uses its talons and beak to feed, defend itself, groom and feed its young. Bald eagles eat lots of fish, though they will eat a variety of prey and carrion, including rodents, seals, and small animals. They don’t need to feed every day, and store food in a pouch in their esophagus called a "crop".

The bald eagle is the only eagle found exclusively in North America and is the USA’s national emblem, a living symbol of freedom, spirit and the pursuit of excellence. Ironically, it was pushed toward extinction by eagle habitat destruction and associated starvation, pesticides (mostly DDT), hunting, and exposure. The Bald Eagle Act was passed in 1940, making it illegal for humans to harass the bald eagle. Despite this, many were killed in Alaska by fishermen, who feared they were a threat to the salmon population and the fishery. Populations have currently rebounded as a result of recovery and re-introduction programs by wildlife organizations; so much so that in 2007 it was taken off from the endangered species list. The bald eagle is currently protected in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

In legend the eagle alone can look into the sun. According to the translation of St. Augustine, "The sun invigorates the eyes of eagles, but injures our own." Eagles are considered spiritual messengers between gods and humans by some cultures. The Bald Eagle is a sacred bird. The Aztecs revered the eagle as a symbol of strength. The Pawnee believed the eagle was a symbol of fertility because they build large nests high off the ground and valiantly protect their young. Native North Americans believed the thunderbird, a mythical super eagle, was responsible for creating thunder and lightning by beating its wings. The Lakota give an eagle feather as a symbol of honor to a person who achieves a task.

The Bald Eagle has become a symbol of peace by virtue of being included in the Great Seal of the United States of America. The bird represents peace and freedom and is depicted with an olive branch in its right talon, and thirteen arrows in its left talon. While the arrows represent the power of war, the eagle always faces the olive branch, favoring peace. Charles Thompson drew the Bald Eagle into the Great Seal in 1782. Eagles are considered the divine spirit and ruler of the skies. They symbolize power, courage and guidance.

So, what of my dead eagle, the great bird of prey who chose to make his final resting place in my backyard... Considering that today is the last day of 2008, and we shall be “birthing in” a new year, I bequeath our struggles of 2008 to the divine spirit of the bald eagle and choose for 2009 a year of soaring victory. Victory over ignorance and fearful doubt. Victory over hatred and jealousy. Victory over depression and hopeless inaction. Victory over oppression and death. I choose humble enlightenment. I choose tolerance and inclusion. I choose joyous love, compassion and forgiveness. I choose freedom and everlasting life.
Happy New Year Everyone!

The Dead Eagle

By Thomas Campbell

Fall'n as he is, this king of birds still seems
Like royalty in ruins. Though his eyes
Are shut, that look undazzled on the sun,
He was the sultan of the sky, and earthPaid tribute to his eyry.
It was perch'dHigher than human conqueror ever built
His banner'd fort. Where Atlas' top looks o'er
Zahara's desert to the equator's line:
From thence the winged despot mark'd his prey,
Above th' encampments of the Bedouins, ere
Their watchfires were extinct, or camels knelt
To take their loads, or horsemen scour'd the plain,
And there he dried his feathers in the dawn,
Whilst yet th' unwaken'd world was dark below.
There's such a charm in natural strength and power,
That human fancy has for ever paid
Poetic homage to the bird of Jove.
Hence, 'neath his image, Rome array'd her turms
And cohorts for the conquest of the world.
And figuring his flight, the mind is fill'd
With thoughts that mock the pride of wingless man.
True the carr'd aeronaut can mount as high;
But what's the triumph of his volant art?
A rash intrusion on the realms of air.
His helmless vehicle, a silken toy,
A bubble bursting in the thunder-cloud;
His course has no volition, and he drifts
The passive plaything of the winds. Not such
Was this proud bird: he clove the adverse storm,
And cuff'd it with his wings. He stopp'd his flight
As easily as the Arab reins his steed,
And stood at pleasure 'neath Heaven's zenith, like
A lamp suspended from its azure dome,
Whilst underneath him the world's mountains lay
Like mole hills, and her streams like lucid threads.
Then downward, faster than a falling star,
He near'd the earth, until his shape distinct
Was blackly shadow'd on the sunny ground;
And deeper terror hush'd the wilderness,
To hear his nearer whoop. Then, up again
He soar'd and wheel'd. There was an air of scorn
In all his movements, whether he threw round
His crested head to look behind him; or
Lay vertical and sportively display'd
The inside whiteness of his wing declined,
In gyres and undulations full of grace,
An object beautifying Heaven itself.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

A fine testimony to this magnificent bird, Nina.

Happy New Year!

SF Girl said...

Happy New Year to you too, Jean-Luc. Best wishes in the new year. I hope your best dreams come true in 2009.

Susanne49 said...

A beautiful post, Nina and a excellent (sad) photo of the eagle. I would love to see one in flight, for real! :)


Sue's Daily Photography

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Susanne. Yes, the eagle is a beautiful bird and quite something to see in flight. We are fortunate here to see many of them, being on the coast and near water. They flock here in groups to feed and nest in the winter/spring.

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Josh said...

I work for a nonprofit that is currently defending bald eagles from being killed by wind turbines. Can we use your photo? It is hard to find pictures of dead eagles. Many thanks!

SF Girl said...

Josh, you can certainly use the photo. I am happy to share. It would be nice if you could credit me with the photo.