March 27, 2016
It glided over my head, its huge shadow passing over the trail like a storm. I knew without looking that it wasn’t a vulture—it was twice as big. And then it halted in midair, its feather-dancer wing tips adjusting to the high wind, the body suspended, and its shadow a Rorschach blot on the ground.
The golden eagle resumed flight, headed west across the river toward Scotch Jimmy Island. Its wings might have spanned four feet. Its body was flecked with gold. The head and breast were autumnal colors, the beak as big as a bear claw. I have seen this mystical creature four times in three years.
At Blue Pool, photographers were standing on the Great River Road, on the river side. They were taking pictures of a pair of peregrine falcons whose nest was set two-thirds up on a ridge of the sandstone bluff. The falcons, pigeon-sized, were dive bombing hapless turkey vultures and beaking heads. They can fly two hundred-and-fifty miles an hour; nothing can escape them.
Eagles, any ornithologist will tell you, are “lazy.” They perch more than fly (a friend of mine timed a perching bald eagle, watching for two hours while the bird moved only its white head), wait for dinner more than hunt for dinner. If nothing live is available, they will eat rotting fish, mice, snakes and raccoon roadkill. Peregrine falcons catch unsuspecting prey on the fly, blow them up, and take the meat home for the kids.
Eagles are the most majestic of birds. Falcons (along with wild minks) are the fiercest predators in the country. Nothing but nothing would be dumb enough to mess with falcon babies.
Defender birds, crows and redwing blackbirds, work as partners. They fearlessly rise up over the perceived threats’ heads, scream and jam their beaks into skulls and wings, driving “innocent” hawks and herons and egrets from nesting areas.
Even humans experience this phenomenon—having heads jabbed by beaks and claws. A few summers ago, a nesting redwing blackbird in a wetland came at my head at an angle and cut strips of skin off my scalp, blood spurting down the lenses of my sunglasses
Crows are the intellectuals, capable of learning a hundred words of human speech, communicating with each other, memorizing and remembering faces, and identifying “friends” and threats, and using tools. If a crow is in your yard, you have passed inspection.
My Tuskegee Airman friend Wild Bill Thompson once told me, as a kid he dreamed of being a bird, of flying. Bill’s brothers, of course, were predators. Unlike peregrine falcons’ victims, German pilots saw their death coming at them, Redtail Angels bearing down.
The romance of flight is a human construct. Evolution built lethal flying machines with serrated feathers and razor beaks and claws that could break a human hand, and we, the apex of evolution, build killing machines. So there is beauty in violence. I can only watch in awe.
We are watchers: wristwatches, television (we watch birds on TV more than bird watch in the wood), smart phones, binoculars, satellites, radar.
Give me naked, nature yes. Give me golden eagles, hawks, owls, peregrine falcons, crows, songbirds (Mozart pales in comparison), California condors. Let my death be by falcon, me unknowing, my body food for birdgods.
Oh, give me naked eyes.