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Now and again, the peaceable kingdom beyond our cottage deck takes a startling turn. I once on a tranquil summer afternoon saw a highly territorial loon kill a full-grown goose just beyond the reach of the stones I hurled out into the lake to try to stop the murder. Several weeks ago, a persistent cheeping high in the pines overlooking the lake interrupted my deck reading, more insistent and slightly raspier than anything I recognized. Time, I thought, to go inside to consult my handy Donald Kroodsma Backyard Birdsong. Then a passing pontoon boat stopped offshore, all hands pointing upwards into the trees. “Eagle,” came the announcement when I stood up.
Thanks to strict environmental protections, the bald eagle has made an impressive comeback in America since its near-extinction in the past century from DDT, loss of habitat, power-line electrocution, lead poisoning, and misguided hunters, convinced that, whatever its majesty, the raptor also might also carry off poultry, young livestock, domestic pets, and even, given half a chance (so went the mythology), a human baby. Besides these exaggerated threats, its willingness to pirate from other birds (kleptoparasitism) and, worse, stoop to carrion, badly compromised its dignity, both of which malefactions inclined Benjamin Franklin to favor the turkey as America’s national symbol! This ambivalent history has recently been chronicled in Jack E. Davis’s celebrated The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird. As of 2019 in this improbable journey, more than 850 nesting pairs have been documented in Michigan alone, and in February even Central Park in Manhattan had Rover, who, according to his banding, grew up in Connecticut but then moved to Brooklyn.
Closer by, the cheeps overhead continued, and with my binoculars and some helpful shadowy fluttering high up, I was able to locate the bird. And then a second one. Fledglings, one could tell from their all-brown coloration, though not from their size. Juveniles, I’ve read, can be larger than their parents, owing to temporarily longer tail and wing feathers. The young birds proceed from exercising and trying out their wings in the nest to what ornithologists call “branching,” hopping and fluttering—sometimes clumsily—from branch to nearby branch, and then beginning to fly further to nearby trees and beyond as they gain strength. The persistent cheeping is the call to devoted parents to fly over with still another meal, if you please, and the parents, models in the animal kingdom of devoted caring, will for weeks continue to locate and feed their young wherever they are, inside the huge nest or out, even transferring food in the air. Gradually, though, the parents hold food at a distance, encouraging the young to venture further, and they even progressively withhold food, forcing the juveniles to forage on their own—tough love getting an early start. I did, a few days later, see one of the juveniles drop out of the trees on what may have been its first mouse!
This would be only the beginning, of course, in a lifetime of relentless predation, from the inattentive chipmunk, to the scampering rabbit, to the duckling, but mainly to the shallow-swimming fish, small to large. Watching a juvenile in its early attempts at fishing, as I did a couple of summers ago, is to watch a marvel of persistence and improving skills. The fishing bald eagle typically skims over the water rather than dive from on high, but its dive speed, when needed, is 75-99 miles per hour, and its eyesight from eyes huge in proportion to body size— packed with receptors, and, like those of all raptors, front-looking and binocular, providing acute depth perception— is four to eight times stronger than that of the average human. “An eagle riding a thermal at one thousand feet,” notes the popular naturalist Sy Montgomery in a fascinating, if a bit rhapsodic, new book on hawks, “can spot prey across a distance of nearly three square miles” (The Hawk’s Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty).
It is hard to imagine a creature more brilliantly designed and instinctually motivated for killing than the raptor, from the mighty eagle of whatever kind, to the soaring red-tailed hawk, to the fierce goshawk, wheeling through the forest and brush like an F-22 fighter (a bird made famous of late by Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk), to the acrobatic peregrine falcon, with a blinding dive speed of up to 186 miles per hour that can pick off a pigeon mid-air. And let’s not forget the owl family, including the great horned owl, ubiquitous in nature and literature, keen in both night eyesight and hearing, deadly silent in flight, owing to special feathers that disperse and muffle air flow. And with a talon grip rivaling that of the bald eagle, up to 500 pounds per square inch, ten times that of a typical human hand. And all this with a hissing and clacking hostility to match. Those talons and that silent flight were not meant for plucking dandelions in the dead of the night.
And not only the raptor’s physical fine-tuning for whatever prey, but the relentlessly single-minded instinct. “Raptors,” says a falconer friend of Sy Montgomery, “are never happy. They are always wanting, wanting to hunt. And if they are full, they are just flat-lining,” momentarily content, perhaps, but in their souls awaiting the next chase (p. 69). Literature’s proverbially wise and companionable owl is in fact (pace Harry Potter) nobody’s idea of a reticent moral realist contemplating just-war theory—“not this bird,” says Mary Oliver in a chilling essay on the great horned owl, “with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.”
In the night, when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness and fear of being plucked out of this world, but the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life — as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.
(Mary Oliver, “Owls,” Upstream: Selected Essays, pp.133-139)
It is late summer now on the cottage deck, and the eagles are gone, at least for the year. Someday, announces that pacific vision of Isaiah 11, the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard with the kid, whatever this will mean. But at this moment, in this one ambiguous and conflicted world on a sunny afternoon, thoughts remain of two young birds, still learning somewhere, one supposes, to be their magnificent—and fearsome—selves.