On Eagles and Myths…


My beloved and I went to Alaska earlier this month on our honeymoon. It was glorious. If you have the time and the means, and any interest in wildlife, native Alaskan culture, or gorgeous scenery in cooler temperatures, I strongly encourage you to book a trip to Alaska sometime between June and September.

During our travels we witnessed so much wildlife in their natural habitats. There were humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, seals, gulls, and we watched the salmon swimming upstream to spawn. It was all fascinating. We don’t see many bald eagles in Oklahoma, so we were excited to spot them in the trees along the shoreline as they watched the salmon come in.

Capt. Sonny and Charles and me after our amazing experience with the eagles and whales.

We also met other tourists and had interesting conversations with them about what they had seen, their experiences, and what they recommended or did not. During our time in Sitka, while spotting eagles, a woman asked, “Do you know how most eagles die?” in a way that said she already knew the answer. Well, I assumed the eagles’ biggest death threat was the two-legged furless animal, but she said, “No, it is drowning.”

“Drowning?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said, excited to share her newly acquired knowledge. “They can’t tell how big the salmon are from the air, and sometimes they grab one that is too big for them. They are incapable of opening their talons while in flight so if the fish is too big, it will pull them down and they will drown.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “I had no idea.”

“Oh, yeah,” she nodded. “Our tour bus driver told us that fact.”

My writer mind started churning. How interesting! I thought I could turn this into a blog post about how eagles’ behaviors parallel that of people. It could be compared to how we often bite off more than we can chew and are too proud to admit it. I could talk about how we don’t think before we grab the next big fish and it is more than we can handle but are ego (our inner eagle) is unable to let things –relationships, jobs, whatever – go, and eventually drown ourselves. I jotted down a few words on the Notes in my phone to remind me to do some research, find some experts to cite, and draft the essay when I returned home.

Back home, I did draft the essay. It was fun to write. It had amusing anecdotes about how I have, in the past, behaved like a silly eagle and held onto something that wasn’t good for me. Pride or a sense of loyalty, mostly pride, wouldn’t allow me to let that thing go that nearly killed me in the figurative sense. Then, of course, I included my insistence on continuing to scuba dive regardless of my doctor’s advice and real evidence to indicate that it could (and almost did) literally result in my drowning.

I was about to hit publish when I thought that I should do some research on the topic first. I mean the woman from the tour bus did seem sincere, I’m not sure she could qualify as an expert. Plus, maybe a statistic or two about the number of fatal eagle drownings per year would add value and a legitimate tone to the piece should any of my readers lean that way. So, I turned to everyone’s favorite expert Google.

Turns out… the “fact” is false. The various articles I found (written my actual scientists and eagle experts) used the words, “myth,” “wives’ tale,” and the ever-popular proper English “rubbish.”  In summary, my research revealed that the tourist, the bus driver, the good old boy who told the bus driver, and the Tlingit tribe member who pulled the old boy’s leg were all spreading false information. While eagle talons do have a locking mechanism on them, the eagles operate it themselves, not  an instinct out of their control. Man has manipulated the fact of the locking talons, like the stories of pit bull dogs who cannot unlock their jaws once they lock onto a child’s leg (also, not true in case you weren’t aware).

Yes, it is true that eagles often snag a fish that too heavy for them to carry in flight. But it is not true that they cannot let go, and often do. But sometimes they just don’t want to. I can imagine how difficult it would be to catch a fish with my feet, so I can’t say as I blame them (and there we have a different cross-species similarity).

Turns out, instead of releasing his catch, an eagle will just swim to shore. Eagles swim? Yes! Eagles will use their wings to swim to shore if their catch is too heavy for flight. Now, if there is an orca in the area looking for the “Fish and More” special, this may not turn out well. Given that they are not designed for swimming, the eagle’s swim stroke looks much like my own (which is, basically, trying not to drown). Perhaps that is where this whole drowning eagle rumor started.

So, there you have it. Eagles can let go of things they are holding onto that could drag them down into the cold murky waters off the shore of Alaska, if their pride, ego, or misplaced sense of loyalty will just get out of the way. They can release the heavy catch, in pursuit of lighter fare.

Just like I can and should; because I’m just not that strong a swimmer.

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