OPINION: The day the eagle died

This is a story about the day an eagle died. It is not a metaphor or a fable. It is not symbolic of something else. It is about how a particular bird died on the beach of a small boardwalk town on the edge of the Alaska wilderness. He was a long time dying.

No one knew what was killing the eagle. Some people said it must be avian flu, the way the eagle dragged his wings and staggered along the waterline, too weak to fly. Others said, no, look at the discoloration on his forehead and the place where his beak seemed to have peeled away; he must have smashed into something, or something smashed into him. And look at the damage to his eyes. The eyes were truly terrible. The seaward eye might have been missing – it was hard to get a good look. The other eye looked scabbed over. He might have been half blind, the way he stumbled on the rocks, catching those talons on the barnacles.

Ravens and crows hopped along beside him, yanking at his magnificent flying feathers. It was as if the ravens were testing to see if he was dead and ready to eat. Or maybe the crows were exacting some sort of revenge, seizing their chance to get back at a bird that had bullied them without mercy, always feinting toward the crows if they tried to sidle in close enough to grab a piece of a dead salmon, always threatening them with those ferocious eyes and superb beak. Or maybe the crows and ravens were staging attacks on Death itself, as it staggered, hunched, along the beach. Maybe they were frightened by the weakness they all feared would come to them. Impossible to know.

The people in the town were horrified – one was crying – and they didn’t know what to do, but you can’t let a bald eagle, blind and disheveled, stumble along the beach with his head sunken to his chest. The children tried to chase away the ravens, of course. One woman, who had once raised a goose, thought that if they could get a blanket over him, they could put him in a dog carrier, and evacuate him to Juneau on the floatplane that was standing by. Maybe the wildlife rehabilitation people could save him then. But no, others said, stay away from him – either because people can catch bird flu too, and you have to be careful, or because he is a great and glorious bird and he should be left at least his dignity. “Some dignity,” an old guy said, “scuffled up like that and pecked by crows.”

When the sun finally faded out between the clouds and the mountains, the eagle was still hunched at the edge of the water, limping up the beach as well as he could, harassed by the rising tide – one step or stumble, a long, sad pause, another hop. By morning, the eagle had made it to the tumbled boulders at the high-tide line. He must have collapsed off a rocky perch into the damp, seaweed-tangled darkness between the stones, because that’s where a neighbor found him by morning, one wing stretched out, as if reaching for the air that had always lifted him. There was no gleam left in the white feathers of his head, all matted and scuffed, but he raised his head once and then it must have been too heavy, because he dropped it into the shadow.

Of course, people called Fish and Game. “Leave it alone and bury it when it dies, and no, it would be a federal offense to put it out of its misery, so don’t give in to that, although that would be a kindness. And yes, birds feel pain, of course they do,” the Fish and Game officer said. She probably hadn’t been asked about bird pain lately, but she soldiered on. “They have nerves and brains just like we do.” When pressed, she said she didn’t know if the eagle suffered the hard grief of knowing he was going to die. “This is not my area of expertise,” the Fish and Game officer protested. But maybe it wasn’t about grief at all. Maybe the eagle welcomed the chance to return, molecule by molecule, to the glistening rockweed and the black reaching tide. An eagle might understand better than a human what a glory it is to have been an eagle, but what a greater glory to become an ocean. Surely, though, the eagle would not welcome being transformed, mouthful by mouthful into a raven. That would be an awful humiliation, to become the gloss on the wings of your sworn enemy. “So, once it’s dead, bury the eagle where it dies,” she said, and that was that.

By then the ravens and crows had flown away, bored maybe or tired of waiting for a meal. But the people waited. A bulletin went out – There’s an eagle dying on the high beach. Keep your dogs and children away. The message drew a crowd, as one might expect. A few people reached out to give a hug to the guy who runs the charter fishing boat, on his way himself to the funeral of his sister-in-law. A woman on the trail called her dog in, but that dog never did come when he was called, and no one was surprised when another neighbor had to corral him. The lingcod fisherman who had been keeping vigil over the eagle loaded his cart with gear and turned for the harbor, trusting his neighbors to keep the eagle safe while he went back to work – well, not safe exactly, but undisturbed.


But it was impossible to know how long to wait to bury him. “Imagine the horror of piling rocks on an eagle that was still alive,” said a woman. “We should bury him as soon as he dies to protect him, but what are you going to do, poke him with a stick to see if he’s dead?” The people in this town are deer hunters. They think nothing of touching the eye of a deer with the barrel of their rifle, making sure it’s dead before they approach. But even for them, especially for them, this would be an unthinkable insult to a great bird. And that scabby eye.

Birds die, you know, a mother explained to her quiet children. “In the winter, when hunters head up the inlet, they often see dead eagles, starved probably. It’s a hungry ocean before the salmon come.” And maybe the children have in fact seen starved seabirds, murrelets or murres, broken and tangled in the tidewrack. No one mentioned the two eagles that had fought to the death over the bloated corpse of a porpoise the spring before. Eagles will do that – kill each other for food, but no one said so.

I head back to my cabin to write this all down, but I will be back soon, to see if the eagle has died. It would surprise me if he has had the strength to move even one flight feather of that outstretched wing or even to blink his terrible eye. Or maybe already the neighbors have put on their facemasks – everyone has a mask handy these days, and rubber gloves, fisherfolk always have rubber gloves – and begun gently, two people to a rock, to lift the stones to build a holy cairn over the corpse of the great bird. The rocks are a worthy memorial, white granite stones carried down by glaciers 20,000 years ago. Maybe a huge eagle will fly by as they work, her wings whapping, whapping the way they do, and turn her head in that direction. Or maybe no eagles will come by.

But the people will continue to come. That’s what people do; they gather together when something bad happens. There will be a small knot of people to watch or help as the eagle disappears under the stones. The children will make a sign to mark the place, maybe a piece of paper held down by a rock, because the wind will have risen by then.

Death does not honor the boundaries between people and the other animals; it destroys the boundaries. No matter what pride divides us, surely death is one thing we all share. And so of course the people gather to watch the eagle die, and they care about that death. They don’t understand it – who could understand death? – but they care. Eagles are made to fly. People are made to care.

Kathleen Dean Moore is a philosopher and author. She lives and writes in Southeast Alaska.

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