To Fly Like an Eagle

The way an Eagle learns to fly has been coming up in several conversations I’ve had with friends lately. I found this telling of the process on the web a few days ago, and want to post it here.

The…..eaglet was now alone in the nest. Each time a parent came flying in toward the nest he called for food eagerly; but over and over again, it (the parent) came with empty feet, and the eaglet grew thinner. He pulled meat scraps from the old dried-up carcasses lying around the nest. He watched a sluggish carrion beetle, picked it up gingerly, and ate it. His first kill.

Days passed, and as he lost body fat he became quicker in his movements and paddled ever more lightly when the wind blew, scarcely touching the nest edge; from time to time he was airborne for a moment or two.

Parents often flew past and sometimes fed him. Beating his wings and teetering on the edge of the nest, he screamed for food whenever one flew by. And a parent often flew past just out of reach, carrying delectable meals: a half-grown jack rabbit or a plump rat raided from a dump. Although he was hungry almost all the time, he was becoming more playful as he lost his baby fat; sometimes, when no parent bird was in sight, he pounced ferociously on a scrap of prairie dog skin or on old bits of dried bone.

The male eaglet stayed by himself for the most part. He was no longer brooded at night. Hunger and the cold mountain nights were having their effect, not only on his body but on his disposition. A late frost hit the valley, and a night wind ruffled his feathers and chilled his body. When the sunlight reached the eyrie’s (the brood in a nest of a bird of prey) edge, he sought its warmth; and soon, again, he was bounding in the wind, now light and firm-muscled.

A parent flew by, downwind, dangling a young marmot in its feet. The eaglet almost lost his balance in his eagerness for food. Then the parent swung by again, closer, upwind, and riding the updraft by the eyrie, as though daring him to fly. Lifted light by the wind, he was airborne, flying–or more gliding–for the first time in his life. He sailed across the valley to make a scrambling, almost tumbling landing on a bare knoll. As he turned to get his bearings the parent dropped the young marmot nearby. Half running, half flying he pounced on it, mantled, and ate his fill.”

Frances Hamerstrom – An Eagle to the Sky (1970)

I’m learning several things from this story.

  • An eagle doesn’t learn to fly… to “soar on the wings of an eagle” until it’s practically starved. It isn’t just a thrill ride. It isn’t just a hobby. It’s a necessity, a life or death decision.s
  • That decision is partially forced by knowledgable parents. They know their eaglet must learn to fly on it’s own, but they won’t be able to just “teach it” or let it “try it out for fun.” The lesson involves them allowing their offspring to hunger, to even suffer.
  • The eagle’s first flight is not the same as the full grown eagle. It involves falling out of the next, trying out the wings before untested, and eventually, a crash landing.
  • But at the end of that crash landing, the eaglet can eat.

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