Gifts of an Eagle: The Remarkable Story of a Bird and Her Family

Gifts of an Eagle: The Remarkable Story of a Bird and Her Family

by Kent Durden

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New York Times Bestseller: The “extraordinary” true story of a golden eagle adopted by a California ranching family, and how she changed their lives (Delia Ephron).

In 1955, Ed Durden brought a baby golden eagle home to his ranch in California, where she would stay for the next sixteen years. As her bond with Ed and the Durden family grew, the eagle, named Lady, displayed a fierce intelligence and strong personality. She learned quickly, had a strong mothering instinct (even for other species), and never stopped surprising those who cared for her. An eight-week New York Times bestseller, Gifts of an Eagle is a fascinating up-close look at one of the most majestic creatures in nature, as well as a heartwarming family story and “an affectionate, unsentimental tribute” (Kirkus Reviews).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453271711
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 09/11/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 152
Sales rank: 632,206
File size: 652 KB

About the Author

Kent Durden (1937–2007) was a wildlife photographer, documentarian, and writer best known for his acclaimed book Gifts of an Eagle (1972), an account of his family’s sixteen years caring for a golden eagle named Lady. In a column for the Wall Street Journal,Delia Ephron named the memoir among the five greatest books about animals. Durden also wrote the novel Flight to Freedom (1974) and the memoir A Fine and Peaceful Kingdom (1975). A native of Southern California, Durden toured with the Audubon Society for many years, giving lectures and screening his film about Lady, which included original footage of many of the events from the book. It is available at His daughter, Krissy Durden, lives in Portland, Oregon, and contributed a new foreword to Open Road’s edition of Gifts of an Eagle.
Kent Durden (1937–2007) was a wildlife photographer, documentarian, and writer best known for his acclaimed book Gifts of an Eagle (1972), an account of his family’s sixteen years caring for a golden eagle named Lady. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Delia Ephron named the memoir among the five greatest books about animals. Durden also wrote the novel Flight to Freedom (1974) and the memoir A Fine and Peaceful Kingdom (1975). A native of Southern California, Durden toured with the Audubon Society for many years, giving lectures and screening his film about Lady, which included original footage of many of the events from the book. It is available at His daughter, Krissy Durden, lives in Portland, Oregon, and contributed a new foreword to Open Road’s edition of Gifts of an Eagle.

Read an Excerpt

Gifts of an Eagle

By Kent Durden, Peter Parnall


Copyright © 1972 Kent Durden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-7171-1


Lady Comes to Live With Us

Many true stories have been written describing the relationships between man and the various members of the animal kingdom that have become his devoted and loved pets. Few true stories record a relationship lasting as long as this one, and even fewer involve a creature as proud and noble as a golden eagle. This, then, is the story of "Lady," who for sixteen years shared her life with a human family and gave her devoted loyalty to her master.

It is difficult for me to recall a time in my life when Lady wasn't part of the family. There are faint recollections of that brilliant spring day in 1954 when my father and I inched our way down a steep cliff, carefully lowering ourselves to a point just above a huge pile of sticks. Clinging to scrub oaks and manzanitas, we made the decision to take the final step and capture the huge nestling golden eagle that we knew rested quietly against the cliff just beneath us.

For several years we had entertained the thought of training a golden eagle for falconry. Together Dad and I had trained many hawks and falcons, and often while flying our hawks, we would see eagles in flight. We would gaze in awe at their huge size, and the thought of being able to cause an eagle to plunge from the sky at our beck and call haunted us day and night.

At that time the golden eagle was a state-protected bird—now they are federally protected—and, as such, they belonged to the People of California. In order to legally retain an eagle in captivity, we had to obtain a permit from the State Department of Fish and Game. We were thrilled when we finally received the permit. It stated that we were obtaining the eagle for "educational and research purposes," to increase the public's knowledge of the golden eagle. Also in the fine print it stated bluntly that our permit could be revoked at any time "without cause or reason."

Now the search for an eagle's nest was begun in earnest. Dad took to the air in his small plane and began to search the country for adult eagles. It wasn't long before he spotted a pair of adult eagles soaring high over the Conejo Valley to the east of our home in Carpinteria. He joined the big birds for a while as they circled in the thermals. They seemed not to mind the company of the large red and white "bird," and he often passed within a hundred feet of them without causing alarm. Then he drifted away and began a thorough search of the cliffs on the mountains around the valley. In less than an hour he covered more cliffs than a man could explore on foot in a week. At last he spotted the telltale sign; a ledge with a jumbled pile of sticks streaked with the whitewashing of years of use. He swung closer on the next pass, and as he glided by, got a glimpse of the downy nestling lying quietly in the cup of the nest, waiting for the return of its parents. The chick raised itself up to look at the big "bird" passing by. Dad eased the throttle open and headed for home. He planned to return from time to time to check on the size of the young bird. It was important to let the old birds feed it for as long as possible.

The training of the golden eagle was not our only goal in getting the bird. We wanted to study the intelligence and behavior of the king of birds and, above all, we wanted to record the entire story on motion-picture film. The first chapter of our film would be the training of the golden eagle.

By capturing the nestling, we knew, we were accepting the responsibility for her welfare and safety, not a thing to take lightly. I fastened the rope and held it taut as Dad made his way over the edge. It was three hundred feet to the bottom, and I kept a cautious eye on the oak that held the lifeline. I heard a low whistle as Dad got his first close view of the object of our efforts. The eagle was a nestling in name only. By her size one wouldn't classify her as a helpless infant, as the word nestling implies. She stood almost two feet high and was almost completely feathered out, with only a few downy tufts remaining around her head.

She made her defense at the back of the ledge, facing her enemy with gaping mouth and extended talons. A considerable time passed as Dad and the eagle eyed each other. Dad knew that he had to get her by the ankles, just above the large talons, before she had a chance to use her weapons. There wasn't much room to move about on the ledge, the nest being about six feet wide and four feet deep. Made up entirely of sticks and twigs piled one upon another, it represented several years of nesting activity. Every movement by Dad sent a tremor through the wobbly pile and reminded him of the three-hundred-foot drop to the valley floor.

As he eased toward the bird, she pressed her back against the cliff and stared wildly at his face. He carefully selected his precise target and with lightning speed grabbed the bird's ankles. In an instant she was thrashing all around the nest, causing the whole pile to wobble threateningly. With great difficulty he finally succeeded in putting her into a gunnysack and tying a rope to it. The signal was given, and I began to pull the sack up the cliff.

As the sack came into view, I was eager for my first glimpse of the bird who would become a part of our lives. Looking back in retrospect now, it is no surprise that the first parts of the eagle's anatomy to greet me were eight long, black, curved sabers protruding through the burlap like some medieval torture trap just waiting to be sprung. A good part of my life would be spent dodging the swift movements of those taloned feet.

On the ride home, Dad and I talked casually about the future days of training, trying to hide our feelings of anxiety about taking on such a project; meanwhile the eagle lay in her darkened sack at our side, her huge talons clenched in quiet determination.

The large cage with heavy fishnet sides had been prepared and waiting for weeks in anticipation of our honored guest. We entered with the sack and carefully though unceremoniously spilled the jumbled mass of black feathers, talons, and yellow feet out onto the dirt floor. For a moment the mass of feathers weaved about somewhat unsteadily as the great bird adjusted itself to this abrupt change. Then the feathers began to take on form and shape as the eagle arranged her wing and tail feathers and gathered her feet beneath her. Only then did we begin to realize just how large this bird was. She was magnificent! When standing erect she was almost two feet tall. Her sturdy legs were about one inch in diameter at the ankle, and at the thighs about two inches. Feathers covered the legs all the way to the feet. The thick yellow feet were armed with eight curved black talons from one to three inches long. The broad chest gave indications of the strong pectoral muscles needed to drive the seven-foot wings.

There is probably no more fierce face than that of a wild eagle. The yellow-brown eyes are set at a forward angle, each protected by a boney, feathered shield called a superorbital bone. This gives the bird a perpetual look of fierceness. The ebony bill adds to the total effect with its wicked hook designed for tearing flesh to shreds.

At this point in our observations, the eagle became aware of our presence. She wasted no time in coming to the conclusion that we were the cause of all her troubles. As she turned to face us, we realized that this was no ordinary bird. Most birds of prey when first captured will retreat backward until they are cornered, and then put up a fight, or they will simply try to flee. But here before us this golden eagle ignored the drive to flee and instead attacked us! In our haste to retreat we stumbled over one another until we had gained the safety of the outside.

After she had cleared the cage of unwanted occupants, she surveyed the surroundings. It was a large cage, about twenty feet long and eight feet wide, with sides of fishnetting. An alcove provided a darker place for a resting area. We watched as she walked around the cage in her heavy, swaggering stride. Then she looked up at the perch we had so carefully prepared with soft leather padding fastened with shiny brass tacks; it provided, we thought, a seat fitting for the queen of birds.

To our delight she hopped up on it. But then a look of contempt came over her as she examined the soft perch. Suddenly she began to tear and rip the leather with her powerful bill, casting each piece disdainfully over her shoulder until our beautiful perch was in shreds, and her yellow feet rested firmly and somewhat proudly on the rough bare wood. She had just demonstrated to us that, although she was our captive, she was still able to exercise certain prerogatives of her own, even if it was only in selecting the type of perch to rest on.

From this first experience we began to realize just a bit of the proud and aggressive nature of this great bird. We had much more to learn. To the surprise of everyone, we named her Lady. Not "lady" as a delicate member of the weaker sex (which she certainly did not typify) but "Lady" as a proud, regal member of the nobility. We retreated to the house to plan our strategy for the next day.


Early Training

Before one can train any bird of prey, a leash must be attached to the bird. Obviously a collar can't be put on the neck, so short leather straps are fastened to each ankle by the use of an ancient knot known as the falconer's knot. These short leather straps are called jesses. To the two jesses a single leather leash is attached by the use of a snap hook. The attachment of the jesses was the first step in the training of this eagle.

I do not remember how we ever managed to get the jesses fastened to Lady's feet. However, I can remember ten pounds of thrashing, screaming eagle. Since this was the first step in the training, we had the cameras rolling for the event. It was our belief that the eagle wouldn't use her bill in defense, and since I had her feet firmly in my grasp, we felt quite safe. But our theory was quickly shattered. The film shows very clearly how Lady scored a bullseye on my nose with her hooked beak.

With the jesses firmly attached, we again returned her to the cage. She was still a young bird and we didn't want to risk injuring her limbs by allowing her to struggle against the jesses and leash. We needed time also to get her accustomed to our presence before proceeding further. We began by working with her in the dark of night. Most birds of prey are helpless and refuse to move if they can't see. There are two ways of achieving this condition. One way is using an artificial device called a hood, which is simply a fashioned leather cap that slips over the head of the bird, thus blinding it. The other way to achieve blindness is to simply work with the bird in the darkness of night.

For many nights Dad worked with Lady. Standing next to her in the darkness, he would talk softly and stroke her feathers gently with his hand. At first she flinched when he spoke, but then gradually she became accustomed to his voice. This went on night after night. Gradually Dad introduced the gloved hand by touching the back of her legs. Before long she was standing on his gloved arm, while he stroked her with his other hand and talked to her in soothing tones. Little by little, in the black of night, the unique relationship between my father and Lady was established, a bond between man and bird that was to last for sixteen years.

Although Lady seemed tame at night, the days were another matter. As we approached the cage, she would stand at the far perch eyeing us closely, first with one eye and then with the other, looking deceptively gentle. Upon our entry into her cage she would attack us. We tried to avoid any unnecessary movements. We merely wanted her to allow us to stand in her presence. This she flatly refused. We were well prepared, with legs well padded and with leather jackets and heavy gloves and at times even a fencing mask. Lady would aim about chest-high, flying at full force from about fifteen feet away. Always we managed to throw up an arm for her to contact. She would slam into it with both taloned feet, give it a couple of bone-crushing squeezes, and then drop to the ground, where she rebounded instantly at our knees. This attack would be met by gloved fist held just at the level of her sturdy breast. Time and again she would rebound, almost like a punching bag, to the fist. Finally, exhausted, she would return to her perch. Any sudden movement on our part as we left the cage would very likely trigger another attack.

Frightening as these attacks were, they provided us with very important information about Lady's strength and endurance. Even though her bones were still young and her muscles still developing, she possessed fantastic strength in her feet. We realized that this bird could easily kill a man if her talons ever found the right mark. However, we had to continue our efforts each day until she would allow us to enter her cage.

It was two weeks before Lady would allow us to enter her little domain without attack. Even when she did, she was very definitely in control of the situation. If we moved too quickly or did something she didn't approve of, she would threaten us by various means which we always recognized. Progress at this point was very slow, but gradually, through day-to-day contact, we were able to stand next to her and finally touch her.

We now had an eagle who would give us permission to stand in her presence and, of all things, touch her! Now we had to train her to ride on the gloved arm. This is the only way to transport a bird of prey. Such birds cannot be carried in the arms like a cat, nor can they be led on a leash like a dog. The heavy glove serves two purposes. First, it is a protection from the talons; second, it provides the bird with a steadier perch to grip. It would be impossible for an eagle to maintain her balance on an ungloved arm due to the looseness of the flesh.

To our surprise, Lady learned to step on the gloved arm quite easily. However, she could hop off any time she pleased since we were still in the cage. The day soon came to take her outside for the first time. For this we had to attach the leash to the jesses. Until this time she had been able to move about at will within the confines of the cage. Now for the first time she had to remain on the fist against her will. She tried to fly off immediately. This movement is called bating; it involves probably the most strenuous activity of the training for both bird and trainer. As the bird launches from the fist, the trainer keeps the jesses tight so the bird is swung down to hang upside down until the trainer with the other hand swings it back up on the fist. Often in the early stages the bird will refuse to grip the glove and will fall off again and again. With a bird as heavy as a golden eagle, the trainer's arm soon wearies. Consequently, these lessons are of short duration. Many days passed before Lady finally realized she couldn't get off and became "made" to the fist. She finally became so accustomed to this manner of transportation that she preferred the fist to a stationary perch. Through all these steps Dad filmed as I proceeded with the training. The film was to portray how to train a young eagle, and in the film I was the trainer, a boy of sixteen. In reality, it was Dad who first introduced Lady to each new stage of training. He had her trust and respect. Once she was moderately accustomed to the new step, I began to work with her while Dad filmed. In this way I benefited from the trust and respect she had for him. Although Lady would perform for me obediently, as she was trained to do, it was only because Dad had first spent much time with her. We began to notice very early that she resented my intrusions upon the scene. She tolerated me, but only very reluctantly.


Excerpted from Gifts of an Eagle by Kent Durden, Peter Parnall. Copyright © 1972 Kent Durden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Chapter I: Lady Comes to Live With Us
  • Chapter II: Early Training
  • Chapter III: Adolescent Years
  • Chapter IV: A Relationship Grows
  • Chapter V: Filling the Larder
  • Chapter VI: Eagle Sense
  • Chapter VII: Motherhood
  • Chapter VIII: A New Home
  • Chapter IX: Bit Parts
  • Chapter X: A Feature Role
  • Chapter XI: Mature Years
  • Chapter XII: A Courtship in the Air
  • Chapter XIII: Epilogue

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Gifts of an Eagle: The Remarkable Story of a Bird and Her Family 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dull writing & confusing story. I very much enjoy stories about the relationships between people and animals (especially non-traditional animals) but GIFTS OF THE EAGLE was a huge disappointment. For starters, the writing style is quite dull, the book reads more like a report than a story. Secondly, I found the events a bit confusing and would have preferred a bit more explanation. Lastly, the father and son literally "stole" the eagle from its nest as a baby yet when they were re-creating the events for their educational film they used a netting technique. I abandoned this book after just a few chapters, it was too tedious and not enjoyable to read. I don't understand how this bland book could have been a best seller when it was first published. Thankfully I'm only out one dollar and nintynine cents as I bought this e-book when it was on sale.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago