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Eagles – Millennia of inspiration, symbolism and mystery

Nations, religions, and leading brand names have adopted the image of the mighty eagle, and the longevity of this inspiration is perhaps why we are so keen to save them.

Eagles are remarkable creatures – large, strong, and imposing – they are often described as the ‘king of birds’. There’s something about the power of these apex predators that impresses us, and has done for millennia.

Many have attempted to share in its reflected power. There’s a wonderful old English saying: ‘The eagle does not catch flies’, meaning that important people don’t concern themselves with trivia.

This large bronze eagle stands in Regent’s Park, London.

Our ancient ancestors believed that these otherworldly raptors were so formidable that they must have supernatural abilities. The Roman writer Pliny, for example, claimed that a magical ‘eagle stone’ was kept in their nests, which was supposed to have healing properties.

The image of an eagle has been used symbolically to denote authority throughout human history, representing nations such as the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Russia. The American bald eagle became the US national symbol in 1782 and is still intimately associated with the present-day USA. An eagle features on the coat of arms of many other modern countries too, including Mexico and Poland. In the UK, an eagle is the emblem of the Royal Air Force.

Prussian Eagle
Eagle on a nineteenth century Prussian state memorial.

“There’s a wonderful old English saying: ‘The eagle does not catch flies’, meaning that important people don’t concern themselves with trivia.”

Eagles are also linked with religion. The king of the Greek gods, Zeus, and the ancient Germanic god, Odin, were both associated with them as well. Lecterns in Christian churches are frequently eagle-shaped because Christians believed that the word of God when read aloud should soar.

Lecterns in Christian churches are often in the shape of an eagle.

The symbology of this mighty bird is still important today. The image is utilised by some of the world’s leading brands and organisations, appearing in the logos of Armani, Wolf Blass, American Airlines, Barclays Bank, Smirnoff, Lazio football club and many others. In these contexts the eagle has come to represent prestige, maybe, rather than power.

There seems to be a deep-rooted, enduring reverence for the eagle within the human consciousness. When it was realised that the iconic American bald eagle was potentially on the brink of extinction, a long-lasting national environmental campaign gained widescale support and the species was saved. There have also been several attempts to reintroduce eagle species into areas where habitat loss and human persecution have led to their eradication.

This is an aspect of what has become known as rewilding.

White Tailed Sea Eagle
White-tailed eagles have been successfully reintroduced to Scotland and Ireland.

A good example is the project that reintroduced the white-tailed eagle to Scotland, where it became extinct in about 1917. The project began in 1975, and over the following decade, eighty-two young eagles were brought over from Norway. With careful support and further reintroductions, eventually a self-sustaining breeding population was established that now exceeds one hundred and twenty pairs and is anticipated to climb further. The white-tailed eagle has been successfully reintroduced to Ireland as well, and researchers are assessing the feasibility of performing a similar feat in Wales and southern England.

The human respect for the eagle’s skills has led us to contemplate practical roles for them. Building on the eagle’s natural predatory instincts, some species have been flown to discourage the activities of other birds. In 2018, for example, a tawny eagle was flown regularly at the Open golf tournament at St Andrews to keep gulls away from the food outlets, and was reportedly very successful.

Eagles have also been trained to take down rogue drones flying in places where they are not welcome such as near airports, or when used for illegal surveillance. Trials of trained eagles in the Netherlands, France and Geneva show that eagles are capable of detecting and intercepting drones. However, their usefulness in practice as well as their ability to maintain focus on the task has been called into question, and the Netherlands project was later abandoned. In addition, there have been concerns about the safety and welfare of birds used in this way. Is it legitimate to exploit a predator to deal with a human problem when it may place the eagle in danger?

The human relationship with eagles, as with the rest of nature, continues to evolve.

Photography (c) Dr Simon Wills
Dr. Simon Wills
Dr. Simon Wills

Dr Simon Wills is a wildlife writer and photographer, and author of the book ‘A History of Birds’ (White Owl, 2017) Twitter: @WriterWillsy