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The Golden Eagle and His Eyrie by W. A. Baillie-Grohman



A somewhat tedious journey of thirty hours from Paris brought me one fine afternoon in the early part of July to Kulstein, an ancient fortress forming the frontier-town of the North Tyrol, toward Bavaria. While occupied in passing my portmanteau through the prying and unutterably dirty hands of the custom-house officials I was accosted by a man dressed in the garb of a Tyrolese mountaineer—short leathern breeches reaching to the knee, gray stockings, heavy hobnailed shoes, a nondescript species of jacket of the roughest frieze, and a battered hat adorned with two or three feathers of the capercailzie and a plume of the royal eagle. Old Hansel was one of the gamekeepers on a large imperial preserve close by, with whom some years previously I had on more than one occasion shared a hard couch under the stunted pines when inopportune night overtook us near the glaciers while in hot pursuit of the chamois.

This unexpected meeting proved a source of the liveliest interest to me, inasmuch as this old veteran of the mountains was on the point of starting on an expedition of a somewhat remarkable character. A pair of golden eagles, it appeared, had made a neighboring valley the scene of their frequent ravages and depredations among the cattle and game, and Hansel was about to organize an expedition to search for, and if possible despoil, the eyrie. Of late years these birds have become very rare. Switzerland is nearly, if not quite, cleared of them, while the Tyrol, affording greater solitude and a larger stock of game, can boast of eight or at the most ten couples. They are, as is well known, the largest and most powerful of all the birds of prey inhabiting Europe, measuring from eight to eight and a half feet in the span, and possessing terrible strength of beak, talons and wings. A full-grown golden eagle can easily carry off a young chamois, a full-grown roe or a sheep, none of them weighing less than thirty pounds; and well-attested cases have occurred of young children being thus abstracted. In the fall of 1873 a boy nearly eight years of age was carried away by one of these birds from the very door of his parents' cottage, situated not far from the celebrated Königsee, near Salzburg.


The breeding-season falls in the month of June, and in the course of the first fortnight of the succeeding month the young offspring take wing and commence their raids in quest of pillage on their own account. The eyrie or nest is an object of the greatest care with the parent birds, the site being chosen with a view to the greatest possible security, generally in some crevice on the face of a perpendicular precipice several hundred feet in height. It is built of dry sticks of wood coated on the inside with moss. Hansel informed me of a surmise that the eyrie of this pair would be discovered in the face of the terribly steep "Falknerwand;" and although I had once before been engaged in a similar exploit, I could not resist the temptation to join in this expedition, and despatched on the spot a telegram to the friend who was awaiting my arrival in Ampezzo in order to make some ascents in the Dolomites, announcing a detention of some days. This done, we re-entered the cars and proceeded a few stations farther down the line to quaint old Rattenberg, a small town on the banks of the swift Inn. Not an hour from this place the scantily-inhabited Brandenberg valley opens on the broad and sunny Innthal. The former is merely a mountain-gorge. Far up in its recesses stands a small cottage belonging to the keeper of a wood-drift, and in close proximity to this solitary habitation is a second very wild and wellnigh inaccessible ravine, the scene of the coming adventure.

Having passed the night in the modest little inn at Rattenberg, Hansel and I set off next morning long before sunrise on our eight hours' tramp to the wood-drift by a path which was in most places of just sufficient breadth to allow of one person passing at a time. Few of my fellow-travelers of the day before would have recognized me in the costume I had donned for the occasion—an old and much-patched coat, short leathern trousers, as worn and torn as the poorest woodcutter's, and a ten-seasoned hat which had been originally green, then brown, and had now become gray. My face and knees were still bronzed from the exposure attendant on a long course of Alpine climbing the year before.


The keeper of the wood-drift was an old acquaintance of mine, whose qualities as a keen sportsman had shone forth when four or five years previously I had quartered myself for a month in his secluded neighborhood, spending the day, and frequently also the night, on the peaks and passes surrounding his cottage. To the buxom Moidel, his pretty young wife, I was also no stranger, and her smile and blush assured me that she still remembered the time when, reigning supreme over her father's cattle on a neighboring alp, she had administered to the wants of the young sportsman seeking a night's lodging in the lonesome chalet. Many a merry evening had I spent in the low, oak-paneled "general room" of Tomerl's cottage when he was still a gay young bachelor, and no change had since been made in the aspect of the apartment. In one corner stood the huge pile of pottery used for heating the room, and round it were still fixed the rows of wooden laths by means of which I had so frequently dried my soaking apparel. Running the whole length of the room was a broad bench, in front of which were placed two strong tables; and at one of these were seated, at our entrance, two woodcutters, who had heard of the intended expedition and come to offer their help. They informed us that four more men engaged in wood-felling in a forest an hour or so distant would also be delighted to join us, as they did at the close of their day's work.

The evening was spent in discussing the details of the approaching exploit and getting our various arrangements and implements in order. At nine o'clock, leaving Tomerl and his wife their accustomed bed on the top of the stove, the rest of us retired to our common bed-room, the hayloft. We were up again by three, and an hour later were all ready to start. Tomerl led the way, but stopped ere we lost sight of the cottage to shout a last "jodler" to his wife, who returned the greeting with a clear, bell-like voice, though her heart was doubtless beating fast under her smartly-laced bodice.

Three hours later we had reached the gorge, and after some difficult scrambling and wading through turbulent torrents we arrived at the base of the Falknerwand, which rises perpendicularly upward of nine hundred feet—an altitude diminished in appearance by the tenfold greater height of the surrounding mountains. Finding, after a few minutes' close observation, that nothing could be done from the base of the cliff, we proceeded to scale it by a circuitous route up a practicable but nevertheless terribly steep incline. Safely arrived at the top, we threw down our burdens and began to reconnoitre the terrain, which we did ventre à terre, bending over the cliff as far as we dared. Great was our dismay to perceive that some eighty or ninety feet below us a narrow rocky ledge, which had escaped our notice when looking up from the foot of the cliff, projected shelf-wise from the face of the precipice, shutting out all view of a crevice which we had descried from the bottom, and which, as we anticipated, contained the eyrie.

After consulting some time, we decided to lower ourselves down to this rock-band, and make it the base of our further movements, instead of operating, as we had intended, from the crest of the cliff, where everything but for this obstacle would have been tenfold easier. Posting one of the men at the top of the cliff to lower the heavy rope, three hundred feet in length, by means of a cord, we descended to the ledge, which was nowhere more than three feet in width, and in several places scarcely over a foot and a half. Standing in a single row on this miniature platform, we had to manipulate the rope with a yawning gulf some eight hundred feet in depth beside us, and nothing to lay hold of for support but the smooth face of the rock.

We began operations by driving a strong iron hook into the solid rock, at a point some two or three feet above the ledge. Through this hook the rope was passed, one end pendent over the cliff; and to obviate the peril of its being frayed and speedily severed by the sharp outer edge of our platform, we rigged up a block of wood with some iron stays to serve as an immovable pulley. These preparations completed, the men were assigned to their respective positions. Hansel and Tomerl, two renowned shots, were to lie at full length, rifle in hand, one at each end of the row, to act as my guardian angels if I were surprised and attacked by the old eagles while engaged in the work of spoliation. The remaining woodcutters, with the exception of the one who had been left on the top of the cliff, were placed in file along the ledge to lower and raise the plank which was to serve as my seat, and to which the rope was securely fastened after being passed through an iron ring attached to my stout leathern girdle. A signal-line was to hang at my side, and a hunting-knife, a revolver, a strong canvas bag to hold the booty, and an ashen pole iron-shod at one end and provided with a strong iron boathook at the other, completed my equipment, each article of which had undergone the strictest scrutiny before its adoption.

Taking the pole from the hands of Hansel, I let myself glide over the edge of the cliff, and the next moment hung in empty space. After being lowered about eighty feet, I found myself on a level with the crevice before mentioned, and gave the preconcerted signal for arresting my downward progress. Owing, however, to a beetling crag or boulder which overhung the recess, I was still at a distance of ten or twelve feet horizontally from the goal. Fixing the boathook into a convenient indentation of the rock, I gradually pulled myself in till I reached the face of the wall. Then leaving the plank, I crawled up an inclined slab of rock which led to the actual crevice, until I was stopped by a barrier of dry sticks about two feet in height. Raising myself on my knees, I peered into the oval-shaped eyrie, and saw perched up at the farther side two splendid young golden eagles.


It is a very rare occurrence to find two young eagles in one eyrie. These, though only four or five weeks old, were formidable birds, measuring considerably over six feet in the span, and displaying beaks and talons of imposing size. It took some time to capture and pinion these powerful and refractory ornithological specimens, whose loud, discordant screams caused me several times to glance involuntarily over my shoulder at the strip of horizon visible, to assure myself that the old eagles were not swooping down to the rescue. I was in the more haste to leave the eyrie that the stench which emanated from the remains of numerous victims strewn in and about it was something terrific. These relics, which I had the curiosity to count, consisted of a half-devoured carcass of a chamois, three pairs of chamois' horns and the corresponding bones of the animals, the skeleton of a goat picked clean, the remains of an Alpine hare, and the head and neck of a fawn.


The canvas bag being too small to contain both the eaglets, I was obliged to hang one of them to my belt, after tying my handkerchief round his beak. The game secured, I crept cautiously down the slab to the plank, and fixing the hook of my pole in the indentation of which I had made use in drawing myself in, I gave the preconcerted two jerks with the signal-line. Now occurred the first of a series of accidents which came near resulting fatally to the whole party. Contrary to my strict injunctions, the men hauling the rope gave a sudden and violent pull, wrenching the pole from my grasp, and communicating to the plank a motion like that of a pendulum, which sent me flying out into space, with the immediate prospect of being dashed by the retrograde swing against the solid wall of rock. Happily, I preserved my presence of mind, and grasped instantly the only chance of escape. Tilting myself back as far as the rope and the ring on my belt allowed, and stretching out my legs horizontally, I awaited the contact. Half a second later came a heavy blow on the soles of my feet, the pain of which ran through my whole frame like the shock of a galvanic battery. Had it  been my head, the reader would probably never have been troubled with any account of my sensations. As it was, my feet, though protected by immensely heavy iron-shod shoes, received a concussion the effects of which continued to be felt for weeks.

Almost at the moment of this incident I had noticed a dark object shooting past me, at so close a proximity that I distinctly heard the whistling sound as it cleft the air. Supposing it to be a stone, I gave it no further thought, and my attention was presently occupied by a sharp gash which the young eagle at my belt managed to inflict on my left thigh. It was not until I had stopped the haemorrhage by strewing some grains of powder into the wound that I perceived with surprise that I was still stationary, instead of ascending, as in due course I ought to have been. The boulder of rock projecting a few feet over my head prevented any view of the ledge, and my shouts inquiring the cause of the delay received indistinct answers, the words "patience" and "wait" being the only intelligible ones. These might have had a consoling influence but for the fact that a thunderstorm—an occurrence of great frequency in the beginning of summer in the High Alps—was fast approaching, and my position was one that exposed me to its full fury without any possibility of escape. Ere long it burst over my head, drenching me to the skin in the first five minutes, while the lightning played about me in every direction, and terrific claps of thunder followed each other at intervals of scarcely a few seconds. What heightened the danger as well as the absurdity of my situation was the chance that one or both of the old eagles might return at any moment, under circumstances that must render a struggle, if any ensued, a most unequal one. Supposing my guards to be still at their post, the distance of the ledge was such as to make a shot at a flying bird, large as it might be, anything but a sure one; and the tactics of the golden eagle when defending its home do not allow of any second attempt. A speck is seen on the horizon, and the next moment the powerful bird is down with one fell swoop: a flap with its strong wing and the unhappy victim is stunned, and immediately ripped open from the chest to his hip, while his skull is cleft or fractured by a single blow of the tremendous beak. Instances are, however, known in which the cool and self-possessed "pendant" has shot or cut down his foe at the very instant of the encounter. Happily, my own powers were not put to so severe a test: the old birds were that day far off, circling probably in majestic swoops over some distant valley or gorge.

I was forced, however, to be constantly on the alert, and my impatience and perplexity may be imagined as hours elapsed and there were still no signs of my approaching deliverance. The storm had long since passed over, and darkness was settling down when I again felt a pull at the rope, and continued my ascent, begun nearly four hours before. It was of the utmost importance that the whole party should regain the top of the cliff before night had fairly set in. I therefore deferred, on my arrival at the ledge, all questions and rebukes till we had gained a place of safety. The heavy rope, fastened to the cord, was hauled up by the man on the top, and after it had been secured to a tree-stump we swarmed up without loss of time. We had still before us a somewhat perilous scramble in the darkness down the steep incline, but the exhaustion we had undergone made it necessary that we should first recruit our strength by means of the food and bottle of "Schnapps" with which we were fortunately provided. While we were thus engaged I received from my companions an account of the causes of the perilous delay.

On receiving my signal they had begun to haul, but after the first pull had felt a sudden jerk, and perceived that the block, supposed to have been securely fastened at the edge of the platform, was gone. They imagined at first that it had struck and killed me, but my shouts soon apprised them of my safety. Fearing to continue the process of hauling lest the rope should be cut by the sharp-edged  stones, they informed the man on the cliff of the mishap, and despatched him to procure a second block. He accordingly ran down the slope to the bottom of the mountain, cut a young pine tree, shaped a block, and was in the act of carrying it up when the storm burst forth, and the lightning, playing around him in vivid flashes, cleft and splintered a rock weighing hundreds of tons that had stood within thirty paces of him. He received no injury except being thrown on the ground and partially stunned by the terrible concussion, but it was not till after a considerable time that he was able to rise and continue his ascent. Had he been killed, our situation would have been a most precarious one. There would have been no possibility of regaining the cliff without help, and as our party comprised all the working force of the neighborhood, and Tomerl's cottage was the only dwelling within fifteen or twenty miles, our chances of rescue would have been extremely slight.

We reached the bottom of the mountain as the upper part was beginning to be lit by the rays of a full moon, and a three hours' tramp brought us without further mishap to the cottage. Moidel, forewarned of our return by a series of "jodlers," a sound which may challenge competition as a joyful acclaim, had prepared an ample supper; and when Tomerl produced his well-tuned "zither," a species of guitar producing simple but soft and highly musical strains, the mirth was at its height. Then followed songs eulogistic of the life of the chamois-stalker, who, "with his gun in his hand, a chamois on his back and a girl in his heart," has no cause to envy a king. A dance called the "Schuhblatteln," in which the art consists in touching the soles of one's shoes with the palm of the hand, finished our evening's amusement, and we retired, rather worn out, just as day was breaking.

After four hours' sleep we rose refreshed and eager to examine our two captives. Attached to Tomerl's cottage was a diminutive barn, from which we removed the door, and nailing strong laths across the aperture, managed to improvise a large and roomy cage. A couple of rabbits furnished a luxurious breakfast, which was devoured with extraordinary voracity. The hen-bird, as is the case with all birds of prey, was considerably larger and stronger than her brother, though the latter had the finer head and eyes.

A week after their capture they were "feathered" for the first time. This process consists in pulling out the long down-like plumes situated on the under side of the strong tail-feathers. These plumes, which, if taken from a full-grown eagle, frequently measure seven or eight inches in length, are highly prized by the Tyrolese peasants, but still more by the inhabitants of the neighboring Bavarian Highlands, who do not hesitate to expend a month's wages in the purchase of two or three with which to adorn their hats or those of their buxom sweethearts. The value of a crop of plumes varies somewhat. Generally, however, an eagle yields about forty florins' ($16) worth of feathers per annum.

Six weeks after this incident I again wended my steps into the secluded Brandenburg valley, and found the eagles thriving and much grown. Being curious to see if their confinement had subdued their wild and ferocious spirit, I removed one of the laths and entered the barn. An angry hiss, similar to that of a snake, warned me of danger, but too late to save my hands some severe scratches. With one bound and a flap of their gigantic wings they were on me, and had it not been for Tomerl, who was standing just behind me armed with a stout cudgel, I should have paid dearly for my incautious visit.

I know of no instance where human skill has subdued in the slightest degree the haughty spirit of the free-born golden eagle. An untamable ferocity is the predominating characteristic of this noble bird, more than of any other animal. Circling majestically among the fleeting clouds, he reigns lord paramount over his vast domain, avoiding the sight and resenting the approach of man.