Bird of the Month: Eagle
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.’