For the Birds Radio Program: Eagles and Tennyson's poem

Original Air Date: Nov. 19, 1986

Laura talks about the magnificence of the Bald and Golden Eagles.

Duration: 3′39″


(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

Jus two days ago, on Monday, while I was driving beneath Hawk Ridge, a low-flying adult Bald Eagle circled in the blue sky just above my car. Eagles are still migrating through Duluth–their numbers usually peak at twenty to twenty-five a day over Hawk Ridge sometime in late November or early December.

Cold temperatures are no threat to an eagle’s survival, as long as it has food. Of course, the Bald Eagle, unlike its distant relative the Golden Eagle, does very little hunting on land–it fishes. So naturally Bald Eagles cannot remain in an area once the water freezes. But they often remain in the north near rivers, especially ones with dams. There are several places along the Wisconsin River and Mississippi River where large numbers of eagles can be seen during the coldest of winters, and even Alaska and Canada count Bald Eagles among their winter residents.

Bald Eagles are excellent fishers. They have no feathering on their legs to minimize drag when their feet drop into the water to pull up a fish. Their talons are muscular and sharp, and they have no difficulty carrying a fish weighing 20% of their weight. Males weigh 8- 9 pounds, and females, which are much larger, weigh 10-14 pounds. One ornithologist tested an eagle’s weight carrying capacity in 1937. He anchored a 4 pound dead pickerel to an underwater rock weighing under 10 pounds. A female eagle grasped the fish n her talons, but was unable to lift it and the rock. She did succeed in dragging the fish and rock about 20 feet along the bottom, but not out of the water. In June, 1969, one adult bald eagle attacked and killed a female arctic loon, which weighed between 5 and 6 pounds. The eagle couldn’t pull the loon out of the water, so it swam with it, using its wings as paddles, to the nearest shore.

The name eagle comes from the Latin word aquila, for dark, or aquilo, for the north wind, which darkened the sky. The word aquiline has the same derivation–it describes the large, hooked nose that resembles an eagle’s beak.

Our eagle is said to be bald because the white feathers on the head give its head the bald appearance of a vulture. Oddly enough, “balled,” spelled b-a-l-l-e-d, in Middle English, meant shining white, so the name can be justified on that ground.

Benjamin Franklin was familiar with the eagle’s habit of robbing Ospreys of their fish, and deplored the choice of the eagle as the national symbol–he termed it a bird of “bad moral character.” But the eagle inspires a sense of majesty in most people who see it. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote of it:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands,

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

But despite the Bald Eagle’s regal appearance, its call is anything but majestic.

(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”