An Eternity of Eagles: The Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World

Overview

An Eternity of Eagles

The Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World

A compulsively readable natural and social history, An Eternity of Eagles is a profusely illustrated celebration of all things eagle, by a naturalist who has kept eagles himself and ridden with the eagle tribes of Central Asia.

"His vivid description of an eagle, if it could imagine itself, is of a 'carnivorous Buddhist.' Through...

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Eternity of Eagles: The Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World

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Overview

An Eternity of Eagles

The Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World

A compulsively readable natural and social history, An Eternity of Eagles is a profusely illustrated celebration of all things eagle, by a naturalist who has kept eagles himself and ridden with the eagle tribes of Central Asia.

"His vivid description of an eagle, if it could imagine itself, is of a 'carnivorous Buddhist.' Through Bodio’s insights we get a strange glimpse of these other minds that share the earth with us."

—Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain

From one of the foremost author/naturalists in the country, Stephen J. Bodio, comes a compulsively readable natural and social history of the most beautiful bird in the world — the eagle, with a lengthy and admiring introduction by Annie Proulx.

The Eagle’s Shadow traces our love-hate relationship to these “living dinosaurs,” from Neolithic rock art and Native American religion through the practices of Kazakh falconers who use them to hunt wolves, and to contemporary art and popular culture.

Proulx sums up best the heart of this book: “Those of us who are interested in bird behavior beyond the feeder or the identification guide book find meager pickings when it comes to information. I am fortunate that my house faces a cliff with a river at the base where I can watch raptors, water fowl, and a hundred other species. The nests of a pair of bald eagles and another upriver inhabited by golden eagles are in sight from the breakfast table. I have plenty of books on birds, but the information on why the big eagles do what they do is hard to dig out. Eagle behavior is usually lumped together with the general behavior of the Accipitrids, but a single book focused on the rich lore and sweep of eagledom did not seem to exist… . Bodio’s beautifully written and authoritative book, Eagles, is a primary source of information as well as an omnium gatherum from literature, film and mythology concerning these large, striking birds.”

Stephen  Bodio was born and educated in Boston and has lived in a rural New Mexico village for over thirty years. He has traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, and Asia and has written five books.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"His vivid description of an eagle, if it could imagine itself, is of a 'carnivorous Buddhist.' Through Bodio’s insights we get a strange glimpse of these other minds that share the earth with us.
—Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News  and Brokeback Mountain
 
“There is so much brute wisdom, sophisticated science, blood magic, and flat out terrific prose in Stephen Bodio’s writing that he makes me think of Merlin, educating Arthur by turning him into other animals for a while. An Eternity of Eagles is worthy of its great subject, which is not only eagles but the earthbound mortals who marvel at them.”
—Jonathan Rosen, author of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature
 
“Throughout the world we stand in awe of eagles and Bodio’s exciting chapters provide the information on why we feel so. Along with a general sampling of the different species of eagles, the writer provides a thread of thought throughout that ties them intimately to our cultural history. With a sensitive combination of art (Vadim Gorbatov’s full paintings depicting hunting eagles as never before are truly breathtaking) and the writer’s easy- going and evocative style (a jungle-hunting Harpy eagle will ‘pluck sloths like hairy fruit’) we are given a complete tour of the trajectory of these species in our lives. Read and enjoy this book and gain new knowledge that will vastly broaden your respect and understanding of these ascendant creatures.” 
—Tony Angell, artist, naturalist, and author
Kirkus Reviews
A lavishly illustrated natural and social history of the eagle. Bodio, a traveler who writes about hunting and nature, delivers a beautiful follow-up to his book about his travels with the hunters of Mongolia, Eagle Dreams (2003). He provides reproductions of paintings by such artists as John James Audubon, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Emil Doepler and especially the Russian Vadim Gorbatov, whose paintings and color photography of Kazakh and Mongolian eagle-falconers add another dimension to the narrative and complement the author's own photography. Bodio comprehensively covers the world of eagles, including golden eagles, bald eagles, the endangered Philippine monkey eating eagle and the huge harpies of Africa and South America. He also provides a history of humans' relations with the bird. Particularly interesting are a petroglyph from Kazakhstan from about 1300-1200 B.C. and a Chinese hunting scene featuring a hare chased by hounds, an eagle and a hunter on horseback, circa A.D. 350-450. Kazakhs hunt wolves and deer and other creatures with eagles from horseback, and Bodio thinks the ancestors of the Kazakhs may have been the first to hunt this way. He provides eyewitness accounts from publications by travelers and discusses how the birds are captured and trained to hunt. The author also includes a chapter on how these noble creatures were, for a long time, treated as vermin, hunted from the ground and air and poisoned. In the United States, these practices have been outlawed and bird numbers are recovering. Sure to appeal to hunters and nature lovers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780762780228
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/16/2012
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 783,039
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Bodio has written five books. He was on the masthead of such publications as English Literary Renaissance and Gray’s Sporting Journal, and his work has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, the LA Times Magazine, and literary quarterlies. An excerpt of his book Eagle Dreams, about riding with the Kazakh horsemen of Mongolia, was published in The Atlantic and included in Frances Mayes’s anthology The Best American Travel Writing 2002.

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Read an Excerpt

From the introduciton by Annie Proulx:

Some decades ago I, with several other people, was involved with a natural history writing program in Vermont, all of us trying to guide makers of mud ball prose in their journey toward clarity and grace. Several of the instructors had rooms in the same building and shared a common kitchen. At the end of the second day I looked forward to a cold drink on the porch while watching evening bats in the twilight. I reached into the refrigerator’s grim little ice cube compartment and pulled out a tray. Instead of ice cubes, the cavities contained an assortment of moths, large and small. One was a Luna moth, a creature I had not seen since I was a child. Had they made their way into the compartment during the weeks the refrigerator stood empty and gaping? But then the kitchen door opened and a tousle-headed man with glowing eyes came in.

“My moths!” he said to the ice cube tray, as one would say “my long-lost twin brother!” It was my first meeting with Steve Bodio whom I knew only from his essays in Gray’s Sporting Journal. I got used to seeing him crouched by the screen door at night waiting for new moth victims and to monologues about startle patterns, mimicry and melanism. Before the session was over I knew this ardent biologist-naturalist a little better, a man who collected insects, raised pigeons, hunted with falcons and hawks, collected rare books on the natural world, was vastly well-read in history, paleontology, archaeology, climatology, knew about ancient horses, the history and habits of the dog, Egyptian mummification processes, could quote from Buffon, Charles Wilkes, William Bartram, Wilfred Thesiger and the authors of little-known treatises on gyrfalcons and eagles, an eager talker on all subjects. Years after I met him he contracted malaria in Zimbabwe and, of course, developed “…a fascination with parasite evolution.” He was the kind of restlessly curious fellow who might have ended up living with some remote tribe. In fact he continued his examination of the world from a home base in one of the emptier regions of New Mexico in a house full of books, bones, dogs and raptors, a shady back yard mellifluous with his extensive pigeon collection. Eventually I lost touch with Bodio, for years depending on news from our mutual friends, Louise and Bob Jones, who always had a first-rate “Bodio story.”

Bodio learned something of grief when his wife Betsy died. “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief….”[1] His beautiful memorial book, Querencia (a reference to the “safe” place in the bull ring where the beleaguered bull takes his stand), was only briefly available before his amateur then-publisher decided bookstores were part of a corrupt system and locked the copies away. Only through the help of Montana writer friends and lawyers was he able to regain the copies and copyright. For several years after Betsy’s death he stumbled around with various women until he met the extraordinary Elizabeth Adam (Libby)¾archeologist, Outward Bound guide, chef and caterer, mountain climber, world traveler, musician.

Bodio’s passionate enthusiasm for animals and birds and low interest in careerism have led him occasionally into shoal waters; he has eked out a fingernail kind of living. He is a natural history writer with an unquenchable desire to learn about the creatures who share the planet with humans. Following his interests has come at the cost of a decent income partly because he is interested in such non-mainstream subjects as animal behavior, hunting, cockfights, falconry and other blood sports in a time when people are increasingly estranged from the natural world and the harsh lives of non-human creatures in it; if it isn’t domesticated, it doesn’t count. As Bodio somewhat bitterly puts it, “…I am, at least in today’s journalistic niche ecosystem, classifiable as a ‘travel writer’ and a ‘nature writer.’” His interests have taken him all over the world, in particular to Central Asia to be in the company of high-altitude falconers and eaglers.

Most bird watchers are concerned primarily with making lists of the number of birds they have identified, a rather artificial category of knowledge that tells us little about the workings of ecosystems and specific habitats. I was surprised last year reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone. All Franzen’s heart-wound writing urges one to re-examine oneself in the matrix of family and impinging crises. I was attracted to the section on his bird-watching period (“My Bird Problem”) enlivened with brilliant descriptions of several birds and his identification with birds, his journey from clumsy curiosity to headlong obsession. The birds metamorphosed into piteous, poor creatures, then, somehow they became Franzen himself, then became his mother who was dying of colon cancer. In the end Franzen revealed himself as a species-list striver going for four hundred, and when he achieved that goal he became “…weary of birds and birding.”[2]

Those of us who are interested in bird behavior beyond the feeder or the identification guide book find meager pickings when it comes to information. I am fortunate that my house faces a cliff with a river at the base where I can watch raptors, water fowl, and a hundred other species. The nests of a pair of bald eagles and another upriver inhabited by golden eagles are in sight from the breakfast table. I have plenty of books on birds, but the information on why the big eagles do what they do is hard to dig out. Eagle behavior is usually lumped together with the general behavior of the Accipitrids, but a single book focused on the rich lore and sweep of eagledom did not seem to exist. For years I have relied on observation, folklore, and the eagle stories of a few rural neighbors and friends who take notice of them. Bodio’s beautifully written and authoritative book, Eagles, is a primary source of information as well as an omnium gatherum from literature, film and mythology concerning these large, striking birds.

Bird-watchers are often puzzled by avian plumage that is not constant but changes with age, season and locality. Keeping track of such variables for many species, plus pre-molt and molt stages, is terrifically complex. The reductionist approach of bird identification guide books, in an effort to simplify the watcher’s eternal question, “what-bird-is-that?” gives the impression of immutable species in a fixed world. Bodio, in his discussion of ever-branching cladistic analyses of changing species in transitional habitats, reminds us that species classifications are human constructs and that mutability is the common denominator of life. Once we grasp an idea of the fluid currents of changing habitats and climates and the creatures who fit themselves to those changes we can look for adaptative and opportunistic behavior as well as size and feather color. This sense of modification underpins Bodio’s book as he introduces us to the current eagle groups: the sea eagles, which include the familiar bald eagle; the snake eagles; jungle eagles; “odd” eagles; and booted eagles, considered the true eagles by most of us. The booted golden eagle, says Bodio, “…is the quintessential capital-E eagle, the Platonic ideal of a bird of prey….” Bodio also introduces us to unfamiliar eagles as the huge “flying wing” bateleurs of the sub-Sahara, the Indian black eagle with “’paddle shaped’” wings and exceedingly long tail, and the tiny little eagle of Australia.

His vivid description of an eagle, if it could imagine itself, is of a “carnivorous Buddhist.” Through Bodio’s insights we get a strange glimpse of these other minds that share the earth with us. “I believe that animals—birds and mammals anyway—do think, but they think in ways that might seem alien and frightening to us if we could inhabit their minds.” We cannot inhabit their minds, but we can appreciate the gulf of distance between our two species, brilliantly illustrated here.

The categories of behavior and place in the world of categorizing humans ranges from a discussion of the natural history of these birds—their lives, loves, skills and powers, their parenting roles and nest building habits, and, for those eagles that travel, to their migration behavior. There is a broad-ranging review of the eagle in human mythologies and ceremonies from Tibet to the pueblos of the American southwest, in symbolism and art, in the journals of early travelers, and even in adventure novels and films constructed around the supposed fierce and noble characters of eagles. Notable is the film documentary “Kyran Over Mongolia,” “…a brilliant and unflinching record of all of eagle training, from trapping the bird to her taking her first fox.”

Bodio is himself a falconer and the chapter on eagle falconry (eaglry?) is particularly gripping, a history of the sport from the time of Marco Polo to modern-day Kazakhstan where hunting wolves with trained female eagles is still important. The tradition of eagles as hunting partners persists to this day in central Asia. Bodio gives us an arresting contemporary image of the hunter riding out to the field on a motorcycle with his eagle in the sidecar. Where else can one learn of the unusual practices of Japanese falconers with the kumataka or mountain hawk eagle, which their owners keep in a hawk house forbidden to children and pets for their safety?

Do eagles attack humans? Some cite the skull of the Taung child, an early hominid, which was found in association with a fossil bone midden of small animals very like the accumulation around a raptor nest site, and they believe that two holes in the skull may have been made by an eagle—the huge crowned hawk eagle is implicated. Bodio discusses several authenticated examples of eagle damage to humans, from children to Aeschylus who, legend has it, died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head, apparently mistaking his bald pate for a stone. In our own near past eagles were poisoned, snared and hunted from the ground and from helicopters and planes by ranchers who believed the birds carried off young stock. Today the major group taking eagles alive or shooting them are Indians, particularly the Hopi and Navajo. At a big powwow featuring fancy dancing, the remains of thousands of eagles stir the air at ground level. In recent years the eagle permit system for Indians and the associated eagle feather trade has stirred up considerable controversy.

And so now we have a fine eagle book to sit on the shelf with the bird guides, as Shelley wrote of Coleridge, “A hooded eagle among blinking owls.”[3] May all interested in the wild world read it with enjoyment and enlightenment.

From the author's prologue to The Eagle's Shadow:

On a steeply sloping mountainside a few miles north of the little New Mexico town where I have lived for almost 30 years, a shadow falls across me, silent and swift as a blowing cloud.

            I should be ready. I know the eagle’s nest is tucked into a hollow in the vertical wall above. But the shadow crosses me as it must cross a prey animal like a hare, and I flinch and stumble. The eagle, the larger female, has materialized from the air. She stands on the wind, less than a hundred feet away, surveys me with a cool gaze, then catches the wind with fringed wings and blows down its stream.

            An eagle’s shadow has fallen over us since before we were human. The ‘Taung Baby’, a 2.5 million year-old skull from a pre-human South African Australopithecine shows marks and punctures (1) that anthropologists Lee Berger and Ron Clarke attribute to an eagle, one similar to the modern African Crowned Eagle, which is still implicated in attacks on children. (2) Eagles were big enough to be competitors, bold and intelligent enough to live near us without great danger, beautiful and magical in their movement. Almost every culture that encountered eagles has left a written or pictorial account, from the Ancient Greeks to the Japanese t the Aztecs, who knew and mythologized the harpy (whose name comes to us from the Greek for ‘snatcher.’) The Japanese in Hokkaido trained the mountain hawk eagle, calling it kumataka, ‘bear hawk’, (3)  because it was strong enough to kill foxes, raccoon dogs, and small deer. In near- historical times, he ancestors of the Maoris of New Zealand may have been preyed upon by the largest eagle of all, and left behind paintings on rock of this fearsome predator. (4)

            The eagle known in most old societies was the one that still lives on my mountain: the golden eagle, ‘the’ eagle, aetus, the Aquila of the Romans, the ‘damn black Mexican eagle’ of border sheepmen. Golden eagles, at least those of some races, are among the three or four largest predatory birds in the world, and are perhaps the most biologically successful. They live clear across North America, from Labrador to Mexico, in  Siberia, across Asia south of the Himalayas, through all of the Middle East and Europe, and down into the mountains of Morocco. Close relations inhabit South Africa and Australia. They are the bird of prey with the closest relations to humans, antagonistic, appreciative, utilitarian, mythical, real, and even theological, for uncounted thousand of years. Golden eagles are still actors in Pueblo Indian rituals; their tail feathers are sacred to the Plains tribes. The ancient Romans, who gave the name Aquila to the species ad later to the genus, used them as battle standards and war animals that could attack the heads of their enemies. They were reserved for emperors in European falconry, and are still used to hunt wolves in Central Asia and deer in eastern Europe. They have been poisoned by Scottish sheepherders, accused of stealing babies, and hunted from single-engine airplanes in Texas as recently as the early ‘60s. Contrary to the assertions of some of their more sentimental defenders, they are capable of taking antelope and deer in the wild, and, at least once, have been proven to kill calves.

            Eagles are old, old in a way that humans, evolutionary late-comers, can barely comprehend. They have seen human civilizations come and go, Yeats’ ‘old civilizations put to the sword,’ and probably feasted on the remains, for eagles are not too proud to feast on others’ meat. We don’t know exactly how long Aquila has been around, but many modern bird families, near contemporaries, were already flying during the late Cretaceous, time of the tyrannosaur and triceratops.

            Given the rarity of land-bird fossils (fragile hollow bones are evanescent to start with, and true eagles have always been inhabitants of windy uplands rather than the sediment-rich basins that produce fossils), it  likely that true eagles, identical to those alive today, were around to watch as we began to stand upright. Their shadows probably fell over the wandering bands of primates that exploded out of Africa less than a million years ago, long before those restless apes began to build such things as cities and civilizations. Aquila was always overhead, feasting on their leavings, nesting on cliffs over their first river-valley fields.

            Because of the way they view the world, we do not ‘bother’ eagles. But they do need what ecologists call a healthy prey base. A village and farm economy supports eagles very well if we do not persecute them too efficiently. My ancestors in the Italian Alps and Ireland and Scotland doubtless knew the Golden eagle; Aquila still lives in all those places today. A few years ago, when I spent a month hiking around some obscure corners of northern Provence, I didn’t expect to see eagles; the French are notorious for killing raptors. A nation of food-loving hunters with all the old-fashioned prejudices against predators, it only recently discovered that birds of prey are almost irrelevant to gamebird populations. But to my surprise, predatory birds considered rare in more conservation-minded parts of Europe were everywhere. Red kites soared over Roman ruins, Bonelli’s eagles, close relative of the noble Japanese kumataka, wheeled in courtship flight over oak copses beneath the bare teeth of the Dentelles. Best of all, one pair of eagles would come to us. Every evening, as we ate our dinner in the courtyard of the presbytery in Serignan, two great snake-eating short-toed eagles, circaetes de Jean-le-Blanc, would soar out over the village. They’d drift in high overhead, far above the wheeling, screeching flocks of swifts that swirled around town like rush-hour traffic, and turn around and around in stately majesty, flashing snowy undersides as the banked in the setting sun.

            Eagle tolerance is not without limits, of course. A real modern city of tens of thousands and more paves over their food supply. I grew up in Boston and didn’t know a life with eagles until I moved to rural New Mexico. Now if I wish to I can see an eagle every day.

Legendary eagles exist, too. I live in a county where the only case of cattle (baby calf) predation of eagles ever accepted by the Audubon Society took place. Those who understand eagles understand that kill does not mean ‘carry.’ An eagle has a hard time getting aloft with a large jackrabbit. Yet I spent one night drinking whiskey and trying to escape from the descendant of a rancher (he was not a rancher himself, which may or may not be significant) who insisted on telling me that he had seen two eagles ‘fly off’ with a 400 pound steer the previous winter. That this would be the equivalent of his carrying away an eighteen-wheeler cattle truck did not seem like a diplomatic thing to say at the time.

Eagles are not much like us. The sentimental belief that an animal with whom we feel affinity is like us (or worse, likes us) is not the least of our cultural idiocies. It’s probably easier to ‘understand’—-all these questions and approximations must be put in quotes once you think hard about them—-an insect than an eagle. Insect senses and drives are far more alien, but their behaviors are reflexive and mechanical—-binary, on or off. Eagles think and learn.

Our imagination fails to comprehend other animals in two ways. On one hand, we dismiss them as a mess of insentient beings that respond to stimuli and do not think, Cartesian automatons. On the other, we clothe human minds in different costumes, in feathers and fur and scales. We need new ways of imagining the minds of  the ‘other bloods’ with whom we share our world. Eagles contain power and intelligence in a body that weighs only twelve pounds. They can appear and disappear like magic in seconds, fall out of the sky at 100 miles per hour to kill a 100- pound antelope or a five-pound flying goose, with no tools, only the muscles of a hollow-boned body smaller than a child’s. Aquila’s talons can exert a ton of pressure at their tips. Her great brown eyes, capable of resolving a pigeon’s wing flick at two miles, weigh more than her intelligent brain.

Humans, not eagles, order experiences into stories. Nature has no plots, no ambitions, no internal conflicts; its endings are neither happy nor sad because its actors do not tell themselves stories the way we do. An eagle’s perception of its own life might be of a bright eternal present like a carnivorous Buddhist’s, confident, centered, and watchful, with a dim past and no thought of the future. Perhaps, it would be a bit like Ted Hughes’s ‘Hawk Roosting’ ‘I hold creation in my foot/Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly—-I kill where I please because it’s all mine…Nothing has changed since I began.’

Too many writers who write about animals either pretend to scientific distance, using the passive voice and a deliberate flattening of affect to objectify the subject on the page, or else anthropomorphize heir protagonists. I believe that animals —-birds and mammals, anyway—-do think, but they think in ways that might seem alien and frightening to us if we could inhabit their minds. I said a moment ago that eagles have no story, but they do. It’s just that their story is so different from ours that a narration of it would make no ‘sense.’ What to make of the mind of a creature that, if well fed, will sit from dawn to dusk just watching? Or to whom it is ‘moral’ to kill her weaker sibling in the nest? Nobody but another eagle could easily read a lifelike narrative of an eagle’s life without spasms of boredom or horror.

These days predators, in the popular imagination, are seen as utterly benign creatures. Think of the Lion King, where prey animals appear as counselors to the hero. What do they think that lions eat? In such an atmosphere, it’s hard to resist quoting the old Canadian trapper who caught wolves for the Yellowstone restoration project, who allegedly said, ‘Ranchers think that wolves live on cows, and environmentalists think they live on mice; they’re both full of shit.’

The New England naturalist Henry Beston said it best in his book The Outermost House:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall no be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than outs they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

I am human, and so wish I could fly with eagles, hunt with them like an earthbound mate, thinking and imagining myself blowing down the wind like a shadow on furled wings, falling from the sky like a sentient thunderbolt to kill with my hands and mouth. This wish, to understand, to know, and even to be for a moment something different—-or, failing that, to speak of it—-is an entirely human wish; an eagle would not comprehend, or care. We must accept that we exist within a larger context that pre-dates us, and does not need us.

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Table of Contents

Introduction by Annie Proulx

Prologue

Chapter 1: Natural History

Chapter 2: Eagles of the Mind (Eagles in Religion, Mythology, Art, and Symbolism)

Chapter 3: Eagles as Allies (Falconry)

Chapter 4: Eagles as Enemies

Chapter 5: The Future of Eagles

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