Our eagle was a male. Birds of prey are sexed by size, the females being the larger. Immense as this bird seemed with his six-and-a-half-foot wingspread, a large female might have measured eight feet. His plumage was adult. The back and wings were chocolate-black, but there was a bold, severe chevron of white slashed across the base of his tail. The hackles on his neck glinted as though they had been lightly dusted with powdered gold.
Imperial was the word for our captive. Unlike the carrion-eating, fish-snatching bald, or American, eagle, this was a true eagle, Aquila, the imperial eagle of antiquity. Imperial he looked and imperial he acted. If he felt the grip on his legs shift, he would make a lunge for freedom, but otherwise he kept his dignity. He sat quite calmly, wings folded, beak clamped shut, staring straight ahead as though his tricky captors were beneath notice as well as contempt.
We behaved with less aplomb than he, babbling, fidgeting, jigging in excitement. Eagles are magnificent, striking creatures and would be even if they were as common as mallard ducks, which they are not. Except for a few off-course strays (gyrfalcons blown in from the Arctic or rough-legs from the high western plains), the golden eagle is the rarest migrant bird of prey in the East. It is rare because its former hunting and breeding territory has been cleared and civilized, and because, being a bird of prey, it has drawn the particular and persistent attention of civilized gunners. (One "sportsman" who developed the technique of blasting eagles out of the sky from the cockpit of a light plane claims to have executed 8,000 golden eagles in 10 years.)
The day of our eagle was, as we later discovered, coincidentally the anniversary of the passage, three years earlier, of a federal law that outlawed the hunting of golden eagles, giving them the same protected status as the less impressive but more political American eagle. Unfortunately, this law, like so much wildlife legislation, was passed after the crisis had been reached. At this late date there is small reason to believe that the golden eagle will become anything but rarer. Having waited 10 years for the first eagle, there is a good chance we will wait longer for the second. Therefore we measured the bird delicately, as though handling an irreplaceable work of art.
One of the pseudoscientific projects of our bow-netting activities is to determine the weight that birds of prey can carry into the air. Curiosity about this was originally aroused by periodic reports of tiny sparrow hawks flying away with chickens and three-pound red-tails carrying off 15-pound turkeys. In fact, hawks can lift only about three-fourths of their own weight. To test a bird's weight-carrying capacity, it is temporarily restrained by a long, light line to which are attached lead weights. The weight is adjusted until the bird can rise into the air with it. Naturally, line and weights are removed before the bird is released. Since our weight-lifting apparatus was designed for red-tails and smaller hawks, there were certain technical problems in adapting it to test a 12-pound eagle. However, we never had a chance to prove our ingenuity, for Ruth promptly and properly squelched the whole idea.
"You are not," she did not ask, but stated, "going to make that eagle drag a ball and chain across the ground."
And so we tossed the eagle into the air. He rose, still with dignity rather than a terrified rush, and made several slow, low circles over the clearing. The purpose of this maneuver probably was to reorientate himself. However, from where we stood, silent and motionless on the ground, it seemed to be a sort of contemptuous salute. We had fooled him with our tricky pigeons and our busy minds and monkey hands, but we had not put him down.
So, for the 211th day, the 1,354th hour of bow-netting, I made a unique entry in my notebook: "12:09. Golden eagle. Mature, male. Wingspread 76 inches, length 33 inches. Weight 11 lbs. 8 oz. No crop. Wind NNW 13 mph. Temp. 48. No band—none large enough. No weight lift. Released after photos."
To take an eagle is a rare experience, ornithologically and esthetically. But when it was over we knew we had been put in our place, knew our place, and knew no better place to be.