Fly, Eagles, fly — a dive into real eagles
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.