For the Birds Radio Program: Bald Eagle "Rebirth"

Original Air Date: Feb. 11, 2008

Laura is endlessly frustrated by the stupid things people believe about birds. (This was redone in November 2017, because people are still repeating this falsehood.)

Duration: 5′57″


I just got an email with a series of photos titled Rebirth of the Eagle that were supposed to provide an inspirational message about Bald Eagles. Birds give me an enormous amount of inspiration, and I’m a sucker for hokey things, but this particular item completely rubbed me the wrong way.

I got turned off by the very first slide, which says “The eagle has the longest lifespan of its species.” Not only did the caption have an extraneous apostrophe in the word its but the sentence makes no sense, because Bald Eagles are the only birds that belong to their species. But people misuse both apostrophes and the word species a lot, and so I tried not to be cranky and judgmental and clicked on the next picture.

According to this page, the eagle can live to be 70 years old but only if it makes a hard decision. The pictures and ostensibly the text are about wild eagles, but the oldest wild eagle on record at the US Geological Survey’s bird banding laboratory lived to be only 30 years and 9 months. Captive birds can live longer, but the oldest captive Bald Eagle I could find in the records lived to be only 48—more than a couple of decades shorter than 70 years. Eagles and other birds survive day to day by making thousands of quick decisions. There’s never a point in a bird’s life when it has the luxury to sit down and make a hard decision about whether or not to continue living. While it was contemplating the issue, a predator would come in and kill it.

The article says that in its 40s, the eagle’s long and flexible talons can no longer grab prey. Based on the longevity records, this is of course true because by then the eagle is dead. But as long as an eagle is alive, its talons can grab food—their resting position is closed, so even in death an eagle’s toes are its strongest part.

The next slide says that at that age the eagle’s long sharp beak becomes bent. The photo shows another transformation—the Bald Eagle is now a Golden Eagle. But both species have a bent beak from the time they’re nestlings, a beak shape necessary for ripping apart prey. The next photo shows a captive, tethered Bald Eagle. This caption reads that its old-aged, heavy wings, due to their thick feathers, become stuck to the bird’s chest making it impossible to fly. At this point the word poppycock was starting to pop out of my mouth. Eagles molt their flight feathers one by one throughout the year, and although feathers may sometimes get gooped up from slimy fish, the eagle preens each feather often to keep them all in good condition for as long as they last before the next new feathers push them out. When an eagle can no longer fly and catch fish, it dies. Except apparently in the alternate universe of this slide show.

The next slide says that the eagle is faced with two options—die or go through a painful period of change that lasts 150 days. Now it may well take that long for a complete feather molt, but that’s not a painful or debilitating process. So the mystery of what painful process of change the eagle might be going through sucked me into the next slide.

This one said the process required an eagle to fly up to a mountaintop and sit on its nest. Again, the eagle had been transformed to a Golden Eagle, and it was on a rock, not a nest. In the next slide we were back to a Bald Eagle and the caption read that the bird has to knock its beak against a rock until it plucks it out. Since this obviously never happens in reality, there was no photo showing an eagle without its beak. The next slide said that after plucking it out, the eagle waits for a new beak to grow in, and then it plucks out its talons. I have no idea where the guy who made this all up ever came up with this idea, and again, there was obviously no photo showing an eagle without its toes.

Then, according to the next slides, the eagle plucks out its feathers and then after this five month ordeal, the renewed eagle takes off and lives for 30 more years, apparently keeping in hiding from the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory.

I guess that in a culture where people still spend time and energy keeping track of a groundhog to predict the weather, we can’t be too surprised that people think an eagle can pluck its own beak and talons and live to be 70. But in a world where real Bald Eagles can be seen in just about every state, even in many urban centers, why are we looking at spammed slide shows made up out of whole cloth rather than spending our time watching living, breathing, real-live eagles and focusing on their honest-to-goodness splendor? As Rocky the Flying Squirrel would say, “Hokey smoke!”