The bird was soaring far over our heads, so high that I could barely identify it, but its sturdy, broad wings and dark body sandwiched between a white head and tail gave it away. I watched the Bald Eagle as it moved effortlessly across the sky. I knew its “eagle eyes” were scanning the ground for prey—an unwary gopher perhaps, although it would prefer a fish. How could it stay up there so long? Didn’t it ever get tired?
The Bible talks about eagles—they’re mentioned 29 times. Of course, the eagles in the Bible aren’t Bald Eagles. Israel is currently home to nine species of birds in the “true eagles” genus Aquila, and two more hawks have “Eagle” in their common name. Who knows which bird the authors of the Bible had in mind?
Much folklore surrounded eagles in Old Testament times that we now know to be just that—folklore. For example, it was widely believed that, while learning to fly, the baby eaglet is carried on its mother’s wings. Even today, it’s easy to find sincere and eloquent sermons based on this “fact.” The following example appears all over the internet:
Eventually one of the babies will fall out of the nest and begin heading for the earth below. Never having used his wings before, he’s not really sure what to do, but does do lots of flapping while heading straight down! Just before the baby hits the ground, the mother eagle flies underneath in order to ‘catch’ the baby on her powerful wings and she flies him safely back to the nest. This continues on day after day until all the babies learn to fly.
That makes for an exciting story, and the concept appears in Deuteronomy 32:11 and Exodus 19:4, but unfortunately, ornithologists and other bird watchers have yet to document a single case of it actually happening, not in eagles nor in any other species.
Another misconception deals with an eagle’s lifespan and plumage.
When eagles are about 60 years old they go through a renewal process. They find a secret place high in the mountains and begin to claw at their face and tear out the feathers that have been damaged over the years. As a result, it bleeds badly. But this is necessary for the eagle in order to renew its strength. If it did not do this it would not be able to live to its normal 120 years of age.
Again, this appears in multiple versions (usually with different ages) all over the web. That’s too bad, because this is pure fantasy. (Perhaps the original author was confusing their facts with the story of Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.)
The first problem concerns the ages given: Bald Eagles in captivity live to about 60 years of age, while those in the wild have a life expectancy closer to 30 years. Other eagle species presumably have similar lifespans. Certainly, no eagle lives to be 120!
Then there’s the issue with the feathers. Eagles molt, just like other birds, growing all new feathers every year. (Some bird species molt more than once a year.) They do not have to claw their faces and bleed—the feathers simply fall out as new ones grow in, much like our baby teeth did.
Another common claim is that eagles “stir up the nest” in order to motivate an eaglet to move out. Again, I could find no evidence that this actually happens. I do know that the Golden Eagle (above, left), a species found in both North America and Israel, doesn’t tear its nest apart—it reuses it from year to year, often for decades (right).
We need to be careful to stick to the facts when using eagles as models for Godly behavior. And actually, they may not be such good birds to imitate.
For example, eagles covet their neighbor’s dinner. Most eagle species eat carrion, as it takes less effort than hunting down live prey. However, they’re not above stealing another bird’s catch. Eagles have been known to harass other raptors in order to get them to drop the fish or rabbit in their talons.
Also, eagles commit fratricide. A female may lay up to three eggs in the nest. Except in years with an abundant food supply, only one of those eggs will survive to fledge. The first bird to hatch is the strongest, and it has no sympathy for its weaker siblings. It will gobble up all the food, even to the point of killing and eating its nest-mates!
You’ll never see these facts in a sermon!
There are plenty of good analogies that can be drawn from an eagle—its keen eyesight, its ability to soar for hours without a single beat of its wings, its power and stamina. If we want our insights to be taken seriously, however, it is important to do our research and learn the truth. I, for one, am tired of pastors using sermon illustrations that I know to be fables. Just because we read it on the internet doesn’t make it so.