Bird of the Month: Ea­gle

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - John Mcewen

Por­tia Simp­son, Scot­land’s first fe­male game­keeper, hav­ing gral­loched and dragged a stag on the Isle of Rum, took a break and dozed off. There was a ‘rush of cooler air’. Open­ing her eyes, she saw a golden ea­gle ( Aquila chrysae­tos), ‘its talons out­stretched to­wards my torso’.

She screamed and jerked up her arms. The ea­gle veered aside.

‘It was the first and last time that I ever fell asleep out on the heather,’ she said.

On Is­lay, the golden ea­gles kill feral goats by chas­ing them over cliffs, but the bird’s usual diet is rab­bits, hares, birds and, es­pe­cially, en­ergy-sav­ing car­cases; hence the mis­taken at­trac­tion of the sleep­ing Simp­son.

BBC TV’S Win­ter­watch has demon­strated their pow­ers of fe­ro­cious con­sump­tion: a 66lb red-deer car­case stripped bare over days by two ea­gles in seven-and-a-half hours.

It is all in the Book of Job: 39: 28-30:

‘She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place.

From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes be­hold afar off.

Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.’

Win­ter­watch showed a golden ea­gle de­fend­ing a car­case from a fox. The ea­gle won. No won­der we recog­nise it – the most glob­ally wide­spread of all ea­gles – as the all-con­quer­ing king of birds: that there have been ea­gle-gods far into his­tory; that it was sa­cred to Zeus, god of the heav­ens, and his Ro­man coun­ter­part, Jove.

The ea­gle is the sym­bol of the fourth evan­ge­list, John, whose gospel opens with that re­sound­ing af­fir­ma­tion: ‘In the be­gin­ning was the Word.’ Hence the Bi­ble-bear­ing church-lectern in the form of a brass ea­gle stand­ing on a globe. The Word will be borne to the four ends of the earth, bird and mes­sage in­spir­ing in their majesty. The ea­gle is among the four ‘liv­ing crea­tures’ around God’s throne (Reve­la­tion, 4:7); the sym­bol of Christ’s As­cen­sion into heaven.

The Bri­tish golden ea­gle pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing, but its 508 pairs (2015; 442 in 2003) are mostly con­fined to north-west Scot­land and the Outer He­brides; the last English bird died in the Lake Dis­trict in 2016. Ef­forts are be­ing made to in­crease its sparse num­bers in the eastern High­lands and to­ken rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Dum­fries and Gal­loway.

‘Ea­gle-eyed,’ we rightly say, its hu­man-sized eye hav­ing 340-de­gree vi­sion and five times a hu­man eye’s power. It proved too strong and fierce for con­ven­tional fal­conry, its 200mph stoop sur­passed only by the pere­grine. Martin Whit­ley’s Dart­moor Hawk­ing of­fers hunt­ing from horse­back with his golden ea­gle, Artemis; the one place out­side Mon­go­lia where this sport hap­pens.

The RSPB, SNP and other con­ser­va­tion-minded groups seek to ban game shoot­ing, es­pe­cially in the in­ter­est of rap­tors, ea­gles not least. Por­tia Simp­son must have the last word: ‘If they didn’t use the land for shoot­ing, they’d use it for farm­ing or forestry, which would be dev­as­tat­ing for wildlife.’

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