A DETHRONED MONARCH
THE eagle is a bird that deserves much sympathy, for he has seen better times. Until a few years ago the pride of place among the fowls of the air was always given to the eagle. " Which eagle ? " you ask. I reply, " The eagle." The poets, who have ever been the bird's trumpeters, know but one eagle upon which they lavish such epithets as " the imperial bird," " the royal eagle," "the monarch bird," "lord of land and sea," "the wide-ruling eagle," " the prince of all the feathered kind," " the king of birds," " the bird of heaven," " the Olympic eagle," " the bold imperial bird of Jove," and so on, ad nauseam.
The eagle of the poets was truly regal. But somebody discovered, one day, that this bird is, like the phoenix, a mythical creature. Eagles do exist -: many species of them -: but they are very ordinary creatures, in no way answering to the description of the poet's pet fowl. This, of course, is not the fault of the eagles. They are not to blame because the bards have, with one accord, combined to idealise them. Nevertheless, men, now that they have found out the truth, seem to bear a grudge against the eagle. They are not content with dethroning him, they must needs throw mud at him. It is the present custom to vilify the eagle, to speak of him as though he were an opponent at an election, to dub him a cowardly carrion feeder, little if anything better than a common vulture. Let us, therefore, give the poor out-at-elbows bird an innings to-day and see what we can do for him.
But how are we to recognise him when we see him ? This is indeed a problem. There is a feature by which the true eagles may be distinguished from all other birds of prey, namely, the feathered tarsus. The true eagles alone among the raptores decline to go about with bare legs; their "understandings" are feathered right down to the toe. Thus may they be recognised.
This method of identification is on a par with that of catching a bird by placing a small quantity of salt upon its tail. Eagles show no readiness to come and have their legs inspected. There is, I fear, no feature whereby the tyro can distinguish an eagle as it soars overhead high in the heavens. Nothing save years of patient observation can enable the naturalist to identify any particular bird of prey at sight. Colour is, alas! no guide. The raptores are continually changing their plumage. It were as easy to identify a woman by the colour of her frock as a bird of prey by the hues of its plumage. We read of one eagle that it is tawny rufous, of another that it is rufous tawny, of a third that it is tawny buff. The surest method of distinguishing the various birds of prey is by their flight; but is it possible to describe the peculiar flap of the wings of one eagle, and the particular angle at which another carries its pinions as it sails along ? The length of the tail is a guide, but by no means an infallible one. The shikra, the sparrow-hawk, the kestrel, and the kite are long-tailed birds, the caudal appendage accounting for half their total length. In the eagles the tail is considerably shorter in proportion to the size of the bird. Thus the female of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetus) -: which, en passant, is not gold in colour, but dirty whitish brown -: is 40 inches long, while the tail is but 14 inches. The vultures have yet shorter tails in proportion to their size. If, therefore, you see soaring overhead a big bird of prey, looking like a large kite, with a moderate tail and curved rather than straight wings, that bird is probably an eagle. So much, then, for the appearance of our dethroned monarch ; it now behoves us to consider his character and habits. There are many species of eagle, each of which has its own peculiar ways, hence it is impossible for the naturalist to generalise concerning them. In this respect he is not so fortunate as the poet. Let us briefly consider two species, one belonging to the finer type of eagle and the other to the baser sort.
Bonelli's eagle (Hieraetus fasciatus), or the crestless hawk eagle as Jerdon calls him, is perhaps the nearest approach of any to the poet's eagle. This fine bird is common on the Nilgiris, but rare in Madras. It is said to disdain carrion; it preys on small mammals and birds of all sizes. It takes game birds by preference, but when hungry does not draw the line at the crow. If it has hunted all day without obtaining the wherewithal to fill its belly, it repairs to the grove of trees in which all the crows of the neighbourhood roost. As the sun sinks in the heavens the crows arrive in straggling flocks. Suddenly the eagle dashes into the midst of them and, before the crows have realised what has happened, one of them is being carried away in the eagle's talons. Then the corvi fill the welkin with their cries of distress. It is very naughty of the eagle to prey upon crows in this way, because by so doing it mocks the theory of protective colouration. No one can maintain that our friend Corvus splendens is protectively coloured, that is to say, so coloured as to be inconspicuous. No one but a blind man can fail to see a crow as he steadily flaps his way through the air. No one can deny that the bird flourishes, in spite of the fact that eagles eat him, and that his plumage is as conspicuous as the blazer of the Lady Margaret Boat Club at Cambridge. If, as the theory teaches, it is of paramount importance to a bird to be inconspicuous, why was not the whole clan of corvi swept off the face of the earth long ago ?
We have, in conclusion, to consider an eagle of the baser sort. The Indian tawny eagle (Aquila vindhiana), which is the commonest eagle in India, will serve as an example. This bird eats anything in the way of flesh that it can obtain. If the opportunity offers, it will pounce upon a squirrel, a small bird, a lizard, or a frog; but it is a comparatively sluggish creature, and so robs other raptores in preference to catching its own quarry. Most birds of prey are robbers. This the falconer knows, and profits by his knowledge. He first captures some small bird of prey, such as a white-eyed buzzard. Having tied up two or three of its wing feathers so that it cannot fly far, he attaches to its feet a bundle of feathers, from which hang a number of fine hair nooses. He then flies this lure bird. Every bird of prey in the neighbourhood espies it and, seeing the bundle of feathers and remarking the laboured flight, jumps to the conclusion that it is carrying booty, and promptly gives chase with the object of relieving it of its burden. The first robber to arrive is caught in one of the nooses.
The tawny eagle is not above feeding upon carrion. It has not the pluck of Bonelli's eagle, but is apparently not the contemptible coward it is made out to be by some writers. A few weeks ago I noticed, high up in a farash tree, the platform of sticks and branches that does duty for the nest of this species. I sent my climber to find out what was in the nest. While he was handling the two eggs it contained, the mother eagle swooped down upon him, scratched his head severely, and flew off with his turban. As she sped away, her prize attracted the notice of some kites, who at once attacked her. In the milee which ensued, the puggaree dropped to the ground, to the joy of its lawful owner and the disgust of the combatants. I must add that I was not an eye-witness of the encounter ; I however saw the marks of the bird's claws on my climber's scalp.