Review: An Eternity of Eagles

Each spring along  the Snake River Canyon near my western Idaho home, I observe raptor battles as they hunt ground squirrels to feed their nesting young.

It’s not unusual to watch a harrier harass a prairie falcon into dropping its prey, only to have it stolen by ravens.

Sometimes, it  looks like the limp ground squirrel might become an elusive prize in an endless game of tug-of-war among a parade of predators and scavengers. Then a golden eagle appears.

End of fighting.

So large, so intimidating: In a canyon filled with some of the world’s most majestic birds, the eagle still stands out.

It’s easy  to see why, throughout history, people have both revered and reviled them. Villain or victim, religious symbol or emblem of military might, human ally or human enemy: The eagle is many things, but boring is not one of them.

Stephen Bodio captures it all beautifully in his new book, An Eternity of Eagles: The Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World.

As an obsessive reader of nature books, I know full well the potential reasons not to buy such a title: it could be a dry collection of facts culled from Wikipedia, a sentimental and romanticized account of majestic birds and wilderness (with people nowhere to be found) or a doom-and-gloom tome predicting the imminent demise of all birds.

But  Bodio should put those reservations to rest in his introduction:

Too many writers who write about animals either pretend to a scientist’s assumed “objectivity,” using the passive voice and a deliberate flattening of affect to distance themselves from the subject on the page, or else anthropomorphize their protagonists. I believe that animals do think, but that they think in ways that might seem alien or even frightening to us if we could inhabit their minds. I said 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.”

Bodio is both a biologist by training and one of our most skilled nature writers.  He knows the scientific literature, and matches that with an encyclopedic knowledge of human history, conservation and art. He’s ridden with Mongolian falconers who use eagles to pursue foxes and wolves. He has studied eagles, owned them, obsessed over them.

He is, in short, perhaps the only person who could pull off this book.

In a compact volume, Bodio portrays the complexity of human relationships with eagles, but it’s not standard environmentalist hand wringing. For instance, he is glad that to see the end of shooting golden eagles from airplanes—as was practiced on western rangelands, ostensibly to protect livestock. But he empathizes with the difficulties faced by ranchers, and presents evidence that eagles do indeed occasionally kill domestic lambs.

He includes a wonderful natural history account of the world’s eagles, but his eagles also appear in human stories: Ancient origin myths, the hunting tales of falconers, even made-for-tv movies (including one in which an eagle becomes a murder weapon!).

Humans have made eagles the symbols of generals and sports teams, but also have feared the giant birds might carry off babies. Eagles have had their populations annihilated by pesticides, but also stand as one of the United States’ most heralded endangered species recoveries.

As for the future of eagles? Readers of this blog will appreciate the author’s thoughtful overview of the threats to these birds, from poaching to habitat destruction to “unintended consequences.”

Bodio again:

While eagles have affected our species in various ways throughout history, we probably would be the same or very similar species without eagles. Eagles did not make us. Nor did we “construct” eagles, despite the claims of literary theory. But we may well, at least in the short term, construct their future.

In the end, though, he believes that at least some eagle species will outlive our own on Planet Earth, thriving as they hunt prey over our ruins.

As An Eternity of Eagles notes, thanks to conservation efforts, there are probably eagles that you can view a short distance from your own home. Many bald eagles will soon be congregating on any unfrozen water to hunt fish for the winter.

Get out there and find them. Then pick up this book, quite simply one of the most intriguing nature titles published this year.

(Photo: Golden eagle in flight. Credit: Tony Hisgett, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.o Generic license). 

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