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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Muddied and Majestic

Alaska Raptor Center, Sitka, Alaska

“Regal” was not the way I would have described him that day, mucking about in the mud with the others. Nor did he appear noble or proud as he hopped about with his ungainly gait, vying to grab what he considered his share of the take. Instead, he appeared rather bedraggled, a bit vulnerable and obviously hungry. And, as is so often the case, the others took advantage of this opportunity to constantly natter at and harass him. In fact, they were unceasing and merciless in their belligerence, darting in as they dared to scold and attack. Undeterred, he stuck to his mission, finally grabbing his prize and silently lifting off to circle higher and higher. Still, he was followed by a streaming menagerie - swooping, lunging, attacking and squawking - that seemed to accompany him until he slowly faded from view. At what point they gave up, if ever, and finally left him to his peace, I did not know. Obviously, there is another side to majesty.

Liberty Bay in Poulsbo, Washington is extremely shallow and muddy. When the tide goes out, vast mud flats are revealed - the lower the tide, the more mud. Many underwater sea creatures become stranded at these times, left uncovered and unprotected. Some burrow down into the ooze or squiggle under rocks; others hide beneath damp seaweed. But many are simply marooned, left to the mercy of the sun, wind and ever-present carnivorous birds. Noisy gulls, crows, herons, and eagles swiftly move in to scavenge what they can while they can. And so it was the day I spotted the lone Bald Eagle.

In 1782, the Continental Congress adopted what was called the American Eagle as our national emblem, though not everyone agreed. Benjamin Franklin opposed the choice, as he favored the wild turkey for such an honor. One hundred years later, the ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent commented that the Eagle's carrion-eating habits and attacks on the smaller, weaker osprey “hardly inspire respect and certainly do not exemplify the best in American character.” To add further insult, many felt the large birds were simply “lazy”. True, they often are amazingly sedentary, remaining on the same perch for hours at a time. The reason? Competency and efficiency. Adult eagles are free to sit and conserve energy precisely because they can secure food at will - with deadly speed and aim. Skilled hunters, they are able to capture waterfowl in flight and rabbits and mice on the run. But they also eat carrion and are accomplished food thieves, as many an osprey has learned. It’s called survival.
I ponder this majestic bird and see there are two sides to the coin - just as there are to our American values, collective actions, or individual characters. We all have our muddled times in the mud of this world - times when we are less than regal and certainly not proud. And there are the times we spread our wings, sunlight delineating all that’s pure and good and promising in us - and soar.
For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.       Matthew 24:27 - 28

Even youths grow tired and weary,
        and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
       will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
      they will run and not grow weary,
      they will walk and not be faint.
             Isaiah 40: 30 - 31

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