FOURTEEN The Bald Eagle

More drama on board today. Minnie let out another existential shriek and we rushed to her. Not the giant fin of a Salish Sea orca this time (see post Eight) but a huge raptor that had barrelled into the sea and was, as we just saw, rising up with a salmon in its talons. Incredible yellow beak and the yellow circles of its eyes, white feathered head and dark brown body showed it to be a bald eagle (‘bald’ in the Middle English sense of ‘white patch’ – as in piebald pony).

This sea hunter must have been a female – they grow 25% bigger than males and can possess a wingspan of up to eight feet. Bald eagles are found the length and breadth of the Americas – but they follow Bergmann’s Law, effectively a rule of thumb postulated by a German anatomist, Carl Bergmann, in 1847 which states that the same breed of animal will be larger the further north it lives. So while our bald eagles here can have a wingspan of eight feet, down in the southern states, the wingspan is more like six feet.

a very early image of a bald eagle taken with a stereo camera in 1860 (c )Library of Congress

Minnie was clearly frightened by size – and probably by the speed ( as much as 100 mph) of the eagle’s stoop, the stab with long, sharp rear talons and the rip out of the ocean. The bird’s cry would not have instilled terror. The bald eagle has a disproportionate voice – a soft, almost squeaky call that filmmakers don’t like. When the mighty bald eagle rises on the silver screen with a terrifying cry, its voice is dubbed in – usually by an obliging red-tailed hawk.

Benjamin Franklin also thought the bald eagle lacked a certain something. He wrote to his daughter to complain of the adoption of the bald eagle as the national symbol: For my own part. I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly … he is too lazy to fish for himself …. besides he is a rank coward: The little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.

John James Audubon was not too enamoured, criticising their “ferocious, overbearing, and tyrannical temper”. The author of the 21 volume Life Histories of North American Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent, agreed with Franklin: the bald eagle is “an arrant coward with a ridiculously weak and insignificant voice.”

But the view of indigenous people was very different. To tribes across the continent, eagles (the bald eagle and the other eagle of the Americas, the golden eagle) were supernatural, mythological creatures celebrated in ceremony and in the eagle dance – and in art (very evident here in the North-West where eagle motifs are carved on totem poles and other traditional forms).

Yellow Horse of the Yanktonai (Western Dakota) tribe with two eagle feathers (c)Library of Congress: Edward Curtis, 1908

The feathers and bodies of the eagles had (and have) deep ceremonial importance. It signified courage, wisdom and strength and its purpose was as the messenger to the Creator. The eagle was believed to carry prayers to the Great Spirit in the Spirit World and also had a special connection with visions. Eagle feathers were highly significant to the Native American Indians and the bones of eagles were used to make the whistles and flutes used at religious ceremonies and rituals. It was a custom to hold an eagle feather aloft when saying a prayer and during special council meetings eagle feathers were held as an assurance that the person was telling the truth. Eagle feathers also held a connection to the Great Spirit. The eagle had the ability to live in the realm of spirit, and yet remain connected and balanced within the realm of Earth.

The Choctaw believe Eagle Medicine is the power of the Great Spirit, the connection to the Divine. It is the ability to live in the realm of spirit, and yet remain connected and balanced within the realm of Earth. Eagle soars, and is quick to observe expansiveness within the overall pattern of life. From the heights of the clouds, Eagle is close to the heavens where the Great Spirit dwells.

Indigenous America was in no sense a cultural monolith. The many different tribes developed different meanings but they all arose over thousand of years to become embedded organically in daily living and language. Indigenous people melded with the natural world in ways that outsiders can only dimly comprehend – and these days there is conflict between traditional practice (which needs eagle feathers and body parts) and the law of the coloniser intent on preservation (despite killing eagles with pesticides and wind turbines). This had led to a black market in eagle bodies – and to a remarkably sensible initiative to circumvent poaching while facilitating traditional ceremonial practice.

The National Eagle Repository in Colorado was set up in 1994 by Bill Clinton after a meeting with 300 leaders from tribes across the country. Its purpose: to provide a central location for the receipt, storage and distribution of bald and golden eagles found dead and their parts throughout the United States.

Eagles ‘found dead’ are sent to the Repository for storage and allocation to Native Americans and researchers. On application (by any tribal member over the age of 18), the Repository will send feathers, wings, tail, talons, a head or body for traditional uses – headdresses, dance shawls, religious and cultural ceremonies. Tribes use feathers, for example, “to bring the intrinsic energy of the eagle into the ceremony. They’re not just symbols, they have actual power that relates closely to the Indian people.”

The numbers of dead eagles and the demand for them are not insignificant: in 2015, the Repository received 3,500 eagles. Though they were able to fulfil 4,500 application for feathers or parts, there remains apparently a two year waiting list.

The National Audubon Society estimates that 5 billion birds (of all kinds) die each year in the United States – almost 14 million a day. The Fish & Wildlife Service offers a breakdown of (some of) “the most common, human-caused sources of bird mortality” and an estimate of the annual cull:

Collisions – building Glass – 599,000,000
communication towers – 6,600,000
electrical lines – 25,500,000
vehicles – 214,500,000
Land-based Wind Turbines – 234,012
Electrocutions – 5,600,000
Poison – 72,000,000
Cats – 2,400,000,000
Oil Pits – 750,000

As the Fish & Wildlife Service explains, this is only part of the slaughter: many additional human-caused threats to birds, both direct (causing immediate injury/death) and indirect (causing delayed negative effects to health or productivity) are not on this list because the extent of their impact is either not currently well researched or easily quantified. For instance, habitat loss is thought to pose by far the greatest threat to birds, both directly and indirectly, however, its overall impact on bird populations is very difficult to directly assess. Other common human-caused and natural threats to birds that are known, but not listed include various entanglement and entrapment threats (e.g., open pipes and nets); predation by other animals besides cats, including humans (e.g., poaching); weather events; starvation; and disease. In its advice on how we can ameliorate the slaughter, the Service suggests that cats be kept indoors.

The likelihood is that the supply of eagles to the Repository will rise. As the Fish & Wildlife Service table shows, 234,012 birds (of all kinds) died in collision with wind turbines; another estimate from the Wildlife Society puts the figure at 573,000. Bald and golden eagles are particularly vulnerable in this respect because they hunt along the shores of the seas and lakes which, of course, are where the majority of land-based turbines are sited. As of last year, there were 58,000 wind turbines producing 5.5% of the country’s electrical power and the plan is to increase this percentage to 20%.

The arms of a turbine are over 100 feet long and they rotate 200 feet up in the air: the danger to large birds like eagles, is obvious. But the multitude of deaths have been accepted in a political balance between nature and clean energy. But the situation is worse than it might be: some of the wind farms have been stupidly sited along migratory paths, for example. Some lessons have been learned, companies have been prosecuted under bird protection laws, and there are encouraging signs of new turbine technologies that do not threaten birdlife.

For two decades, the tripartite battle between government, industry and conservation bodies has been joined – small victories here, stonewalling there. But as the states draw up their electricity-heavy, carbon neutral energy plans that will spur a massive spread of wind turbines, the fight has become critical.


Trump gets attacked by bald eagle –

The gentle call of the bald eagle (at about 30 seconds in) –

The fierce cry of the red-tailed hawk (at 34 seconds in) –

The Eagle Dance at the Zuni Pueblo –

A PBS KQED QUEST film Wind Energy vs. Golden Eagles


peacock posing (c) Meirion Harries


Significance of the eagle –

Jamie Sams ( Seneca/Choctaw) and David Carson (Choctaw) Native American Symbolism

Inside a Remarkable Repository that Supplies Eagle Parts to Native Americans and Science Jennifer Nalewicki (Smithsonian Magazine, September 6th 2016)

National Eagle Repository –

Can Wind Energy Be Bird Safe? Libby Sander, American Bird Conservancy, January 5th, 2017 –