I hate to break it to you friends, but that white-headed, dark bodied wing-ed warrior that you vow your patriotism to is not at all what you think she (or he) is. I've given the obsession over Bald Eagles much thought. I have seen them romanticized, the things of paintings and bronze sculptures. I have seen people tear up at rodeos as the image of an eagle is projected, soaring, on to the dirt of the arena. I saw a woman completely lose her cool as a child slowly bent to pick up an eagle feather on the grass. **First of all, let's make something clear. It IS illegal to keep feathers or other parts of Bald Eagles unless you are from a recognized Native American tribe as stated by the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But this is ME telling YOU to pick up the eagle feather and examine it. Do it. I am not denouncing the fact that the bird is a 14-pound killing machine on wings with talons long enough to puncture your vital organs. I am simply trying to shed light on his or her true nature.**
Bald Eagles rarely maintain the stark white head that is contrasted by a crisp and minute line into their dark brown bodies. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that they don't have the white head/dark body until they are, at the earliest, about 5 years old. There are many stages of juvenile plumage in these birds and all of them consist of some brown feathers on the head. Secondly, Bald Eagles are ruthless scavengers. If ever the term "beat a dead horse" were to manifest into life, it would come in the form of a Bald Eagle ripping the insides out of a weeks-old carcass with as much aggression and fervor as you can imagine. For every one of these beasts catching a fish out of a picturesque lake in mid-flight, there are an army of them eating roadkill.
So why do I bring this up at all? Why do I muddle that satisfying sigh you let out as you pass by your eagle mural above the hearth? Surprisingly enough, it's because I think the eagle a perfect metaphor for human liberty. In our most raw and unaltered form, we are powerful. Not because of the conquering olympic creatures we think ourselves to be but because we adapt. We live almost everywhere. We take shortcuts. We survive.
Protection Island was infested with Bald Eagles. I saw them every single day, waiting above auklet burrows for an adult to leave or a chick to wander too close to the edge. There were cameras set up all over the Rhinoceros Auklet colonies monitoring the damage that Black-tailed Deer were causing. As they graze, the deer often step through the roofs of the burrows and crush eggs or chicks. But over time I became convinced that the Bald Eagles were killing far more auklets than the deer were. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of a pristine eagle and snap a few photos. Most times though, the white heads of the adult eagles were stained red with blood and the ground beneath them, a pile of carnage which I have heard called "feather bursts."
When I started seeing the eagles, I was excited and couldn't believe such a congregation of them existed on one tiny island. But as my field season progressed, I grew used to them. Protection Island is the only place in the world that I know of where people come to refer to eagles as pests. Innumerable nuisances dropped to the level of pigeons or fire ants. And really, they are just another bird. Almost all species of birds have a few places where they are the most abundant.
Now if that isn't a luke-warm homage to the national bird of the United States, I don't know what is. Only remember that my intention is not treason, it is simply truth. Now look at these eagles and think about your scope for beauty. No matter how "ugly" we may think the scavenger is, she is successful at staying alive and that, my friends, is beautiful.
These are my photos so please be kind.
This eagle is ~2 years old:
Here's a ~3-year old:
And a ~4-year old:
These Bald Eagles are waiting for an auklet snack from the burrows beneath them:
Had enough yet?