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Eagles and Their Ways - from Harper's

 

The great golden eagle is one of the most distinguished members of its mighty family. It is found in many parts of the world, a kingly inhabitant of mountainous regions, where it builds its nest on rocky crags accessible only to the most daring hunter.

This noble bird is of a rich blackish-brown tint on the greater part of its body, its head and neck inclining to a reddish color. Its tail is deep gray crossed with dark brown bars. Some large specimens which have been captured have measured nearly four feet in length, while the magnificent wings expanded from eight to nine feet.

The golden eagle is no longer found in England, but is still plentiful in the Scottish Highlands, where it makes its nest on some lofty ledge of rock among the mountain solitudes. Swiss naturalists state that it sometimes nests in the lofty crotch of some gigantic oak growing on the lower mountain slopes, but Audubon and other eminent ornithologists declare that an eagle's nest built in a tree has never come under their observation.

The nest of this inhabitant of the mountains is not neatly made, like those of smaller birds, but is a huge mass of twigs, dried grasses, brambles, and hair heaped together to form a bed for the little ones. Here the mother bird lays three or four large white eggs speckled with brown. The young birds are almost coal-black, and only assume the golden and brownish tinge as they become full grown, which is not until about the fourth year. Eaglets two or three years old are described in books of natural history as ring-tailed eagles, and are sometimes taken for a distinct species of the royal bird, while in reality they are the children of the golden eagle tribe.

Eagles rarely change their habitation, and, unless disturbed, a pair will inhabit the same nest for years. It is very faithful to its mate, and one pair have been observed living happily together through a long life. Should one die, the bird left alone will fly away in search of another mate, and soon return with it to its former home. Eagles live to a great age; even in captivity in royal gardens specimens have been known to live more than a hundred years.

Eagles are very abundant in Switzerland. Although not so powerful as the great vulture, which also inhabits the lofty mountains, they are bolder and more enduring. For hours the golden eagle will soar in the air high above the mountain-tops, and move in wide-sweeping circles with a scarcely perceptible motion of its mighty wings. When on the hunt for prey, it is very cunning and sharp-sighted. Its shrill scream rings through the air, filling all the smaller birds with terror. When it approaches its victim its scream changes to a quick kik-kak-kak, resembling the barking of a dog, and gradually sinking until sufficiently near, it darts in a straight line with the rapidity of lightning upon its prey. None of the smaller birds and beasts are safe from its clutches. Fawns, rabbits, and hares, young sheep and goats, wild birds of all kinds, fall helpless victims, for neither the swiftest running nor the most rapid flight can avail against this king of the air.

The strength of the eagle is such that it will bear heavy burdens in its talons for miles until it reaches its nest, where the hungry little ones are eagerly waiting the parent's return. Here, standing on the ledge of rock, the eagle tears the food into morsels, which the eaglets eagerly devour. It is a curious fact that near an eagle's nest there is usually a storehouse or larder—some convenient ledge of rock—where the parent birds lay up hoards of provisions. Hunters have found remains of lambs, young pigs, rabbits, partridges, and other game heaped up ready for the morning meal.

EAGLES FIGHTING OVER A CHAMOIS. EAGLES FIGHTING OVER A CHAMOIS.

Over its hunting ground the eagle is king. It fears neither bird nor beast, its only enemy being man. In Switzerland, during the winter season, when the mountains are snow-bound, the eagle will descend to the plain in search of food. When driven by hunger, it will seize on carrion, and even fight desperately with its own kind for the possession of the desired food. Swiss hunters tell many stories of furious battles between eagles over the dead body of some poor chamois or other mountain game.

Eagles are very affectionate and faithful to their little ones as long as they need care; but once the young eaglets are able to take care of themselves, the parent birds drive them from the nest, and even from the hunting ground. The young birds are often taken from the nest by hunters, who with skill and daring scale the rocky heights during the absence of the parents, which return to find a desolate and empty nest. But it goes hard with the hunter if the keen eyes of the old birds discover him before he has made his safe descent with his booty. Darting at him with terrible fury, they try their utmost to throw him from the cliff; and unless he be well armed, and use his weapons with skill and rapidity, his position is one of the utmost peril.

The young birds are easily tamed; and the experiment has already been tried with some success of using them as the falcon, to assist in hunting game.

The golden eagle is an inhabitant of the Rocky Mountains, but is very seldom seen farther eastward. Audubon reports having noticed single pairs in the Alleghanies, in Maine, and even in the valley of the Hudson; but such examples are very rare, for this royal bird is truly a creature of the mountains. It fears neither cold nor tempestuous winds nor icy solitudes.

The eagle's plume is an old and famous decoration of warriors and chieftains, and is constantly alluded to, especially in Scottish legend and song. The Northwestern Indians ornament their headdresses and their weapons with the tail feathers of the eagle, and institute hunts for the bird with the sole purpose of obtaining them. Indians prize these feathers so highly that they will barter a valuable horse for the tail of a single bird.

Royal and noble in its bearing, the eagle has naturally been chosen as the symbol of majesty and power. It served as one of the imperial emblems of ancient Rome, and is employed at the present time for the regal insignia of different countries. The bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, belongs to the same great family as its golden cousin, and is a sharer of its lordly characteristics.