Fly, Ea­gles, fly — a dive into real ea­gles

The Review - - News - Mike Weil­bacher Colum­nist Mike Weil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Roxbor­ough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at mike.weil­bacher@ schuylkill­cen­ter.org.

While the Ea­gles foot­ball team was busily dis­man­tling the Den­ver Bron­cos 51-23 last week, I was stand­ing at Cape May Point at the bot­tom of New Jer­sey star­ing at a real bald ea­gle soar­ing over a pond loaded with ducks of all kinds. The real bird is as mag­nif­i­cent as the foot­ball Birds, and with the Ea­gles stand­ing at 8-1 with — sur­prise! — the best record in the NFL and earn­ing a much needed bye this week, let’s take a mo­ment to dive into the life of bald ea­gles, the in­spi­ra­tion for the team.

First, the bald head. The ea­gle’s all-white head, dra­mat­i­cally con­trast­ing with an all-black body, is a strik­ing fea­ture that al­lows the bird to be eas­ily iden­ti­fied — no other bird that large has a body that black with a head that white. But ea­gles have to earn their white feath­ers — it doesn’t come un­til sex­ual ma­tu­rity af­ter the fourth or fifth year. Younger ea­gles are as large as ma­ture adults but sport brown mot­tled heads — and are of­ten mis­taken for other kinds of hawks.

So the foot­ball Ea­gles got their hel­mets wrong — the wings should be black, not white. It’s the head that’s white, not the wings, but we can for­give the foot­ball team that trans­gres­sion.

Ea­gles live close to bod­ies of wa­ter, as their pri­mary source of food is fish. They fly over a body of wa­ter and snag fish with their su­per-sharp talons, eat­ing it on the shore or up in a tree. They can carry sur­pris­ingly heavy loads, in­clud­ing fish at least equal to their own weight. One bald ea­gle was spot­ted fly­ing with a 15-pound fawn, the record for the heav­i­est ver­i­fied load ever car­ried by a bird in flight. Fly, ea­gle, fly.

But they’re op­por­tunis­tic feed­ers as well, feed­ing on a wide va­ri­ety of food in­clud­ing car­rion — that’s dead things. They’re also klep­topar­a­sites — they steal food from other an­i­mals. They’ve been spot­ted steal­ing fish from osprey, an­other kind of fish­ing hawk, not to men­tion ducks from pere­grine fal­cons and prairie dogs from hawks liv­ing out West.

So far this year, our Ea­gles have fed on Bron­cos, Car­di­nals and Pan­thers, with Sea­hawks, Bears and Rams up ahead. Here’s hop­ing the feast­ing con­tin­ues.

It’s the klep­topar­a­site part that fa­mously trou­bled Ben Franklin with our na­tional sym­bol. “For my own part,” Ben wrote his daugh­ter in 1784, “I wish the Bald Ea­gle had not been cho­sen the Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our Coun­try. He is a Bird of bad moral Char­ac­ter. He does not get his Liv­ing hon­estly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for him­self, he watches the Labour of the Fish­ing Hawk; and when that dili­gent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bear­ing it to his Nest for the Sup­port of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Ea­gle pur­sues him and takes it from him.”

That’s one thing we can­not say about Doug Ped­er­son’s Birds: “bad char­ac­ter” is not their is­sue. Un­like, say, cer­tain Cow­boys.

Ben thought the first draw­ing of the U.S. seal made the ea­gle look like a tur­key, and in­stead of him lob­by­ing for the tur­key as sym­bol, as is com­monly mis­un­der­stood, he just thought it was a bet­ter, more no­ble bird. But thank God our team is not the Philadel­phia Turkeys, though head­line writ­ers would have loved that one.

Ea­gles are the world’s largest nest builders — they mate for life and each year re­turn to the same stick nest built at the top of a ma­ture tree, adding more sticks each year. Their nests, called aeries, can ul­ti­mately weigh as much as a whole ton and mea­sure like 8 feet across and 9 feet deep. Lo­cally, there is a bald ea­gle nest at the John Heinz Na­tional Wildlife Refuge Tinicum, ap­pro­pri­ately just a few miles from Lin­coln Fi­nan­cial Field.

Ea­gles are a con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story, as their pop­u­la­tion was dec­i­mated by the eggshell-thin­ning pes­ti­cide DDT. By the 1960s, when that pes­ti­cide was thank­fully banned, only 500 pairs nested in the lower 48 and bald ea­gles were placed on the en­dan­gered species list. To­day, there are 10 times as many, some 5,000 nest­ing pairs, so see­ing them fly over a pond at CapeMay Point is not the rar­ity it once was, and they were re­moved from the en­dan­gered species list a while back. They’ve been seen in the Wis­sahickon and in a tree one win­ter along­side my Schuylkill Cen­ter.

Hap­pily for en­vi­ron­men­tally minded peo­ple like me, the Philadel­phia Ea­gles are a con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story as well, as owner Jeffrey Lurie has been re­mark­ably com­mit­ted to the green­ing, aptly enough, of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. In fact, the Ea­gles are con­sid­ered the green­est team in the NFL and some say in all of pro­fes­sional sports. The sta­dium is wind- and so­lar-pow­ered, they’ve planted al­most 600 trees in the last decade as car­bon off­sets fromteam­travel, they re­cy­cle 850 tons of ma­te­rial an­nu­ally, have com­mit­ted to com­post­ing their food waste and more.

So while Car­son Wentz con­tin­ues putting up MVP num­bers in only his sec­ond year, while the de­fense has been domi- nat­ing, while the mul­ti­headed run­ning game con­tin­ues apace, while they’ve han­dled their fair share of sea­son-end­ing in­juries, the foot­ball Ea­gles are hav­ing a re­mark­able year. Let’s hope it doesn’t end un­til a vic­tory in Fe­bru­ary in Min­nesota.

And in the­mean­time, let’s toast the ea­gles, a re­mark­able an­i­mal that hap­pily still soars over the skies of Philadel­phia.

SUBMITTED PHOTO — DOUG WECH­SLER

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