THE EAGLE OF MISSION RIDGE
ANY years ago a pair of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaëtus) came to live on the southern rim of Mission Ridge. The good people of the lower slopes said the birds were there before they came. The nest was first found by an egg collector in the early nineties, and for several years the big birds were robbed. Then the eagles would have no more of this and left their aerie. But each year they were seen about their old hunting-ground. The new aerie was still somewhere about the ridge, and this was the object of our quest. We wanted to study and photograph this royal pair of birds.
It was the morning of the twenty-fifth of March when we boarded the south bound train at Oakland and landed in a fertile, hilly district. With our cameras strapped to our backs we wheeled rapidly over the first few miles of road, but had to pile our bicycles in the brush about sun-up.
The spring rains had not yet ceased. The grass-covered fields were soft and springy under foot. A rich, earthy odor breathed gently up, and the nostrils failed not to take eager note of it. The air seemed to vibrate at every sound or motion. A band of red-wings held a song service just down the hill where the lush grasses grew. Meadow larks piped and whistled, blue jays squawked, and hummingbirds flashed about newly opened flowers. As we ascended out of the cultivated district the hills were splashed and streaked with yellows and blues and purples of the wild flowers—golden poppies, yellow mustard, and buttercups and purple lupines. Further up the road ceased and we had to follow a cow trail. After we reached the highest shoulder of the range we found the surface rocky and broken. There was scarcely any vegetation on the ridge except a scraggly growth of poison oak and chaparral. We stood long and gazed at the wide stretch of the whole valley. Far below and reaching inland from the lower end of San Francisco Bay the ribbonlike sloughs wound in and out, reaching far back like the tentacles of a huge octopus.
At the very top of the range the mountain breaks abruptly off into the head of the big cañon. This is the native haunt of the golden eagle. A large sycamore tree is rooted in the bed of the little stream. Four good-sized trunks rise from the giant roots. To the branch bending toward the valley, above the steep rocky slope, the eagles had carried a small cart-load of sticks and worked them into the forks where they branched, horizontal to the ground. It was a platform five feet across, not carelessly put together, but each stick woven in to add strength to the whole structure, as the stones are built into a castle.
one of the other trees the photographer put up a tiny platform in
the topmost branches, where the camera was fastened and aimed
downward at the aerie twenty feet away. Nor was it an easy matter to
photograph in the top limbs of that sycamore, where a wrong move
might land camera and all in the bed of the cañon. But for
six different trips, extending over a period of two months and a
half, we took pictures from this position and from the limbs near
"Did the old eagle show fight?" is the first question put by the usual listener. I always see a trace of disappointment sweep over his face when he hears the answer. The moment you speak of climbing to an eagle's aerie the average man gets an idea of the photographer hanging to the edge of a cliff or the top of a tree, with the old eagles clawing out pound chunks at every swoop. Few eagles possess the mad ferocity pictured and magnified by sensational story tellers. When we first scrambled over the bowlders of the cañon up toward the nest, I saw the old eagle slip quietly from her eggs and skim out over the mountain top. When I strapped on the climbers to ascend the tree, I had one eye open for trouble. But each time we visited the spot the parents silently disappeared, and stayed away as long as we cared to remain. They kept a watchful eye, however, from the blue distance overhead. For a noble bird like the eagle this forsaking of the nest and young seemed cowardly at first. But perhaps the long years of persecution have taught him something. The first rule of safety of this pair seemed to be to keep half a mile distant from man, the animal that fights with neither beak nor claw.
Our work at the eagles' nest shows well the necessity of a good series of lenses when one is photographing in the tree-tops. The camera was fastened in a crotch in an adjoining tree, twenty feet from the nest, where it could not be moved forward or back. By adjusting the wide angle lens we could get a view of the nest and surrounding limbs, and at the same time have a depth of focus that showed the outline of the valley lying miles below. By the use of the regular lens the nest was brought nearer the camera, and still the sweep of the rocky side of the cañon was retained. The single rear lens gave a different picture, narrowed down to the outer end of the large limb containing the nest. Our telephoto lens had the power of bringing the nest as close as we cared to photograph it, covering the full size of a 5 x 7 plate and giving a clear definition of the lining of the nest.
One cannot help feeling the dangers of climbing about the limbs of a tall tree, but it always doubles his caution when he has to maneuver in the topmost boughs, carrying a camera that has cost him over two hundred dollars. One day we narrowly escaped an expensive accident. We were hoisting our cameras and half way up one of the lines broke. Fortunately I was below, ready for such a mischance, and as the camera shot downward I spread my hands in the nick of time to stop the fall. It knocked me backward, and the camera would have bounded over the edge of the bank and been smashed on the rocks fourteen feet below had my fingers not closed on the piece of rope as it slipped through my hand.
The golden eagles are mated for life. During the month of February the aerie was recarpeted with small twigs and dry leaves, for the eagles of the summer before had worn it down to a rough platform of sticks. A hollow of this soft material was made in the middle for the eggs, and a branch of green laurel was added. Later on when I removed this branch of evergreen it was promptly replaced by another piece that had been wrenched from the living tree by the eagle. When this second piece had dried still another branch was added. This badge of green seems to be as necessary in the eagle's home as the sacred Lares at the Roman fireside.
At this time the pair of great eagles were inseparable, and they generally hunted together. For days before the mother cradled her eggs they sat for hours at a time close together on a great limb near the aerie. They had several such favorite perches where they sat and watched the rugged mountain sides for food. They were far up the slope where they could look off over the whole sweep of the ridge.
The fog was hanging heavy and wet as we climbed slowly up the mountain the second time, and the tall grass and bushes drenched us at every step. We had started under a clear sky with the stars shining, before the first streak of dawn appeared in the east. At daybreak the cool breath of the sea air began to sweep in through the Golden Gate and up the valley, carrying and lifting the fog as it came. And as the last mist clouds were swept along with their fingers trailing in the scraggly bushes, the great eagle with his crown of burnished gold floated out from the head of the cañon. It was his duty to forage. The mate of sombre black stayed on the nest. She had not left since yesterday noon. For over four weeks she had warmed the two eggs, and now she had twin eaglets at her breast. Instead of leaving her young when we were half a mile down the cañon, as she did when the nest contained eggs, the mother crouched flat down while we climbed the mountain side above the tree and looked at her through the field-glass. But she slid off soon after and sailed away when we started to climb the tree.
Sixteen days later we were in the big sycamore again. By that time the eaglets had grown from the size of an egg to that of an ordinary chicken, but they had not begun to change from the color of snowy white. They lay crouched in the nest, clumsy in body, and watched us angrily with their wild dark eyes. They resented my company when I climbed into the nest and planted the camera right beside them. At that time they were not strong enough to offer much resistance; they could not help being imposed upon. They endured silently, laying up wrath for the days of strength when they could strike a blow that would bring the blood.
The growth of the young eagles was very slow but steady. Fifteen days after our last visit we found that the stiff, black feathers were beginning to push their way through the thick coat of white down, and the eaglets took on a mottled appearance.
we again started up the mountain to visit the aerie we struck a
heavy wind-storm driving down over the hills. We could hardly climb
in the teeth of the gale. I can never forget the sensation as we
crossed through the last fields of standing grain. The wind cracked
and lashed the tall stalks till it seemed we were in the midst of
raging waters. From the ridge we sat and watched the enormous
silvery serpents that wriggled up and down through the standing
grain, as gust after gust swept along the slope. Where the grain had
been cut and shocked the gale created havoc by scattering it
broadcast down the mountain side. But the most difficult task was to
climb the eagles' tree and get pictures in the swaying branches.
We found the golden eagle a valuable inhabitant of any cattle-range or farming community. His food consists almost entirely of the ground squirrels that are so abundant through the California hills and cause such damage in the grain-fields. Once when we looked into the nest we found the remains of the bodies of four squirrels lying on its rim. At each visit we examined the food remains about the nest, and I am sure that a very large amount of the eagle's food, if not all, consisted of squirrels. The hills in many places were full of their burrows, and the eagles seemed to have regular watch-towers on the high rocks about, from which they swooped down on their prey. If it were not for the birds of prey about these hilly districts, some of the places would surely be overrun with harmful creatures of the ground.
I am satisfied that this family of eagles ate six ground squirrels a day during the period of nesting, and very likely more than that. Those young growing eagles surely needed a fair amount of food each day for about three months, and they were well supplied, to say nothing of what the old birds ate. But even this low estimate would mean the destruction of five hundred and forty squirrels along the hillsides in about three months' time. What would be the total if we estimated the killing for the entire year? This is the permanent home of the eagles and of all the families of hawks and owls along the hills and canons.
Near the end of our visits to the eagles' nest the country had changed its appearance. The hillsides had lost the color of green. The sun had baked the pasture-land into granite hardness. Every blade of grass was burned dry and crisp, making the steep slopes almost too slippery for foothold. The heat of the sun's rays had licked up every drop of water in the long series of side cañons through which we had to pass. With our heavy cameras on our backs we struggled slowly up the rugged slopes, slipping and perspiring, our tongues parched with thirst. At dark we ate our supper and gladly stretched ourselves under a tree for the night, a mile down the cañon from the eagles.
When the first gray light of the morning crept down the western slope of Mission Ridge the king and his wide-winged mate soared out over the shadow of the sleeping world. The nestlings were almost full-grown. They stirred about and kept a hungry lookout from the nest edge and the great limb-perch of the parents. At the first sight of food they lifted their wings in strange and savage ecstasy. They were no longer fed, nor did they share the headless body of the squirrel that was dropped in the aerie. One rended it in bloody strips and swallowed it in gulps, while the other held .sullenly aloof, awaiting the return of the mate with its breakfast.
I cannot imagine even a touch of humor in the life of the eagle. A pair of blue jays nested near the eagles, and I imagine they came sneaking around at times when the parents were not at home, just to see what was going on. One day I was sitting on the edge of the nest with my feet dangling over, when one of the curious jays came up from behind. He didn't notice me till he alighted, squawking, close by. His squawking-valve closed short off with a squeak of surprise; he threw up his wings in horror and fell backward. The blue jay himself would have chuckled in enjoyment at the sight, if the joke had not been on him. I enjoyed it hugely, but it was all Greek to the eagles. Everything to them is serious. Life is a cruel, harsh reality; it is blood from birth to death.
The golden eagle appeals to me as a real baron of the middle ages, with his castle and his hunting preserve. The sycamore is his permanent home, the heavens above the ridge and the low-lying fields are his with no questioning, summer and winter. He is more than a match for any animal of his size. Not a beast of the field nor a fowl of the air can drive him out; he stands firm before every earthly power, except the hand of man. He is shy and wary at all times, clean and handsome, swift in flight, and strong in body. An experience gained in the fiercest of schools makes the eagle as formidable as any creature of the wild outdoor.
The eagles revolted at the sight of a human being. They opened their mouths in defiance when we first looked over the nest edge, nor were they one whit less savage for all our visits. From the first they would have rent to shreds the hand that dared touch them. They submitted to us as a caged lion endures his keeper. Meekness and mercy are no part of the life of the eagle. Theirs was a savage spirit that could no more be tamed by the human hand than could the hooked beak and claws be changed. Deep-set under each shaggy brow was an eye of piercing glare, that seemed always searching the far-away blue of the distance. It was the eye of an eagle, and nothing else can describe it. After three months of human acquaintance, it was the real king of birds that left the birthplace, never again to be touched alive by the hand of man.
The golden eagle was formerly found east of the Mississippi as well as west, but it does not now frequent the more settled portions. A single pair may still live in the wildest regions of New England or northern New York, or a few may still have their homes in the mountains of the two Virginias, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, or the Carolinas. The bird is not common anywhere, yet it is still found in the mountainous regions of the West, especially in portions of California. In the Rocky Mountains the golden eagle often builds its nest on the high cliffs, but in California and Oregon its favorite nesting sites are the pines, oaks, or sycamores of the deep canons or the rugged slopes.
Although still found in the wilder regions of California these birds have suffered a great deal from collectors during the last decade. Their habit of occupying the same aerie year after year enables the collector, after once locating the nest, to make his yearly raid to advantage, as the eggs are rare enough to have a good market value. One nest was robbed for three successive years and the female killed, but the male secured another mate and kept the same nest the following season. But where the eagles are robbed continually for several years they are sure to be driven away. They have entirely disappeared from certain places where they were once regular residents.
In several cases I have known the golden eagle to show as marked an individuality as a person. In one aerie that was used a pair of birds showed a peculiar liking for a bulbous plant, commonly known as the Spanish soap-root, and every year they adorned the nest with the large hairlike top of this plant. Another case is on record where the eagle had a peculiar liking for grain sacks, which were used in the lining of the nest. The first time this nest was discovered it contained a large grain sack, but the storms of the following winter dislodged the nest. The new nest that was built the following year was again lined with a grain sack.
It is often the case that a pair of eagles will inhabit the same locality for several years and make no attempt at rearing a brood. Perhaps these are young eagles; many birds do not breed till after the second or third year. In other instances, a pair will repair an old nest and stay about all the nesting season, and yet not go to housekeeping. In a few rare instances the golden eagle has been known to lay three eggs, but two is the usual number.
What does such a series of pictures represent? Three months of patient waiting, varied by six long mountain trips of two days each; backaching tramps up trails to the summit of a rock-strewn ridge, with a heavy camera equipment; and the snapping of over a hundred 5 x 7 plates, exposed at every available view of the stronghold from terra firma to tree-top.
We made a careful study of the nesting habits of a finch to serve as a comparison between the small seed-eating birds and the largest birds of prey. I found the finch building its nest and watched it closely. The home was lined and completed June 24th. It contained three eggs on the twenty-seventh. On July 6th the eggs hatched, and the young were able to leave the nest July 16th. In other words, it took nineteen days for the finches to hatch the eggs and rear the family, or about four weeks to build a nest and send the young birds forth into the world.
How does the eagle compare with the finch? The same aerie was used year after year. Two dull white eggs, shell-marked with brown, were laid the first week of March, just as the sycamore was beginning to bud out. The period of incubation lasted about a month, for the eggs were not hatched till the third of April. The eaglets were covered with soft, white down soon after hatching. White is not the color for a hunter, but these snowy garments lasted for a full month, during which the youngsters grew from the egg to the size and weight of a large hen. The first week in May black pin-feathers began to push up through the down, first appearing on the wings and back. Week after week the stiff feathers grew, but they came slowly, covering the back, wings, head, and neck, until by the first week of June the eaglets were fairly well clothed in a bristling suit of dark brown and black, except for a small white shirt front. The wings and feet were still weak. It required over three weeks longer for the wing feathers to gain strength and the feet to grow powerful enough for the birds to handle their heavy bodies. So, where the finch required four weeks to rear a family, it took the eagle a good four months.
THE EAGLE FAMILY
The largest bird of prey, known as king among birds. A bird of great size and powerful on the wing. It is a rare occasion when one gets a near view of one of these wild birds; they are often seen high in the air, where they soar in great circles. Length, about three feet; extent, about seven feet. Female larger than male.
Bald Eagle (Haliaëtus leucocephalus), Bird of Washington, selected as our national emblem: Male and female, head, neck, and tail, snowy-white, rest of plumage blackish or dark brownish. The young birds during the first year are wholly black. Lives largely on fish, diving for them, stealing them from the fish hawk, or finding dead fish cast up by the waves. Lives throughout the United States.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaëtus): Male and female, entire plumage dark brown; back of neck and feathers on legs lighter brown; legs feathered to toes. Lives in the wilder parts of North America, where it builds a big platform nest in trees or on the ledge of a cliff. Eggs, generally two, whitish, marked with blotches of brown and gray. Lives largely on mammals and birds, including squirrels, prairie-dogs, rabbits, grouse, and water-fowl.