How the sea eagle came to have sharp eyesight (#078)
What a powerful presence an eagle emanates. No wonder the Greeks saw the bird as being the right hand of the supreme god Zeus. And that kings, emperors and other rulers have been keen to use this king of the birds as a symbol to enhance their own importance: its image decorates many flags, weapons coins, and buildings. After all, the eagle symbolizes strength, power and beauty. But in addition to this, he possesses one other characteristic: cunning. Read about this in this new tale.
In times long past there were very few eagles and a village where this ‘bird of the gods’ had settled was certainly proud of having this awesome inhabitant. An eagle certainly has a powerful presence. A large yellow hooked beak with which he can tear anything to bits. Feathered feet and giant claws he can chop through any prey. Not to mention the piercing eyes he can see everything with. And then there’s how he circles graciously, gliding high up in the sky, rising up above everything and everyone.
The inhabitants of a settlement on the extensive planes of western Europe felt favoured when a young sea eagle made its home in the immediate vicinity. Only – it must be said – the eagle had a handicap. But like all strong and clever living beings – be they human or animal – he did his utmost to camouflage his weak spot. When still a young ball of fluff he had spent too much time gazing at the sun. Ever since a large white circular spot clouded his vision. Only by pure cunning could he camouflage his limited vision and continue to impress the world.
Every spring hundreds of buffalos migrated past the village on their way south. When exactly the herd passed the village could, however, not be predicted. It might be several weeks earlier or later than the previous year. The village chief hated all this waiting around. Being convinced that the eagle had been sent by the gods to help him, he climbed the god bird’s tree and asked him if he could assist the village by using his sharp vision while out flying high above them to look out for the large herd.
The eagle was proud of a request being made by the most powerful man in the village, his equal. The proud bird could of course not admit to being unable to spot the herd at a great distance because of his poor eyesight. So he had to think up a cunning plan.
While sitting brooding on this matter, he vaguely registered the painfully slow progress of a slug coming his way. “Good day, oh eagle. And how’s life today?” greeted the slug him cheerfully. Being in a bad mood, the eagle muttered something unintelligible back and half watched how the slug crept towards him while returning to his brooding. It was intolerable that such a pathetic little creeping mollusc could enjoy the best eyesight. And he, the most powerful bird, didn’t. Creation must have made a mistake! What did a such a small creature like that need good eyes for? It had been made to be eaten! Suddenly, he cried out: Clay, clay, cree.” He had a plan!
The next afternoon, because eagles like to sleep in on cool mornings, he lowered himself to the world of the creeping molluscs and decided to pay the slug a visit. The slug had seen him flying towards him from a distance and had quickly hidden himself under a small pile of leaves – you never could be too sure about those birds of prey…”Hallo there, my dear slug,” called out the eagle. “Listen. You are quite small, but you’re also rather special. I need you to help the village”. The slug came out of his hiding place and nodded proudly. The bird of prey continued: “The village chief has asked me to watch out for the buffalos. But right now I’ve a slight problem with my eyes. Nothing serious, a passing problem. Though you have amazingly good eyes, you can’t fly. May I borrow your eyes for a few days?”
The slug fell over backwards in amazement. How on earth did that creature think up such a ridiculous idea? “Well, eagle, I am particularly careful with my eyes. I’m not eager to lend them to anyone.” Pausing for a moment he continued: “But I can still help you: if I climb onto your back, we can watch together. The idea of flying actually appeals to me. I know more or less everything there is to be known about the earth.”
The eagle was not so keen on this plan. “Yes, that’s a good idea, slug, except you’ll almost certainly fall off my back when I make a sudden dive.”
Still sensing that this was his greatest and maybe only chance to see the earth from a different perspective, the slug replied firmly: “I’ve often seen you flying, eagle, and you fly very quietly around in small circles and there’s no danger in that.”
“Well, dear slug, in that case you’ve not been watching carefully enough. I’m a bird which now and then has an irresistible need to make a dive. It’s in my genes, you see. I can’t do anything about it.” For a few moments he thought about it and then decided: “Okay, slug, then we’ll fly together. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Every now and then I make a dive and I can’t guarantee your safety.”
The next day the slug was waiting tensely for his first flight. Quick as a flash he climbed up onto the eagle’s back and stuck himself with extra slime to a spot just behind the eagle’s head. Circling around they flew higher and higher. The slug was totally amazed by what he saw and called out: “Wow, eagle, this is fantastic! We’re seeing so much together! It’s going fine, isn’t it? I can cope with the wind, I’ve attached myself firmly to you.”
The eagle remained silent. Suddenly he dropped his head and plummeted downwards. The high speed and the strong wind blew the slug off his back. “Help, help”, screamed the slug. A small lightweight animal falls more slowly downwards than an eagle can dive. The bird of prey let him plummet downwards fearing for his life, then picked up speed and caught the terrified slug in his beak. He continued hurtling downwards and just before they would have hit the ground he stretched his legs out to land and carefully put the petrified little creature back on the earth.
“Goodness me, slug, that was a close call! I managed to save you in the nick of time. Otherwise you’d have been smashed to pieces. I don’t think it’s such a good idea to do this again.” Relieved to have survived and be back on his familiar earth, the slug was still shaking in pure panic.
The eagle took immediate advantage of the situation: “So you see, it’s a far better idea for you to lend me your eyes for a while. Just until the buffalos come. Then you’ll get them back.” Still trembling from fear, the slug agreed, crawled over to a safe stone, gave his eyes to the eagle and felt his way until he was lying under it.
Already during his flight high up in the sky the cunning eagle had noticed the herd of buffalos approaching and warned the chief. Not for one second did he think of giving these fantastic eyes back to the slug.
This is how the eagle, the king of the birds with his strong beak, powerful claws, mighty wings and cunning also came to possess sharp eyes with which he can see everything.
As for the slug? He waited and waited till he gave up all hope of ever getting his eyes back. Being blind he has become a solitary silent little creature. He still shuffles around feeling his way slowly around in his dark world looking for food and shelter.
The sea eagle is the largest bird of prey in The Netherlands and Belgium and one of the largest in Europe, with a wingspan of 2 to 2,5 metres during flight. In a nose dive it can reach speeds of more than 150 km. per hour. Generally it glides around using rising warm air, thermals. Warm air only rises when the sun has warmed up the earth, hence why the eagle enjoys sleeping in.
The female bird of prey is generally larger than the male. With sea eagles the female is actually a quarter larger. On average this bird of prey reaches 25 years in the wild. At the age of 4 or 5 they start breeding. A pair stay together for life and they breed every year in the same nest, also known as an eyrie. All year round they collect twigs and sticks, especially in the spring. In this way the nest expands and over the years it can grow to be more than 2 to 3 metres wide and 1 to 6 metres deep. A nest like this, generally built high up in a tree, can weigh a few hundred kilos. Male and female sit on the nest and care together for the 1 to 2 young. Once hatched, an eaglet remains about three months in the nest. This eagle also stays here in the winter.
In Europe sea eagles were common until the mid 20th century. Hunting and poisoning in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in a rapid drop in numbers. In the 20th century this was compounded by poisoning caused by pesticides (via fish, birds and other sources). As a result, the number of breeding pairs was close to zero, which was almost the death blow to these large birds of prey. They were actually threatened with extinction in the fifties. In The Netherlands, Belgium and other European countries they actually disappeared completely. By illegalizing the use of the most poisonous pesticides and through the efforts of nature protection organizations in Scandinavia, their numbers have since gradually increased. In The Netherlands ospreys have been nesting in large nature reserves such as the Oostvaardersplassen, Lauwersmeer and the Biesbosch.