March 23, 2022

Melissa has a friend who has been texting her about the crappie run along the Arkansas River bottoms.  She sent me the link and suggested I see if this was an accessible location for us to fish.  Many areas along the river have steep banks and others are overgrown with trees which make it difficult for fly fishing.  The location was an hour and a half away, but I decided to check it out.  I followed the directions along a levee road and ultimately to a small boat launch.  This area did not seem accessible for bank fishing.  As I prepared to leave a bald eagle flew across the river.  I waited and moments later it flew back with a fish grasped in its talons.  The eagle circled and then flew to its nest (aerie) located in a tree just 100 yards from me.

When I looked online, I found it takes the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) four feather shedding’s (molt) and almost five years to obtain their white head.  Both the male and female eagle have their distinctive white heads when they reach maturity at five years and will start breeding.  A bald eagle spends most of its juvenile years covered in dark feathers, anywhere between brown and black.  With each yearly molt the eaglet comes closer to its definitive color, but its plumage goes through four different stages during these molts.  The head stays mostly brown before maturity, while the rest of the feathers go from dark to light and back to brown again.  The eagle mates for life and the pair will often return year after year to the same nest.  While nesting, the pair continuously adds to the structure.  After many seasons the nest can assume gargantuan proportions and stands as a symbol of their fidelity.

As I watched the nest, I noticed the eagle sharing the fish with another bird.  I thought it might be a chick, but the bird was too large, and it was too early in the season for eaglets.  It did not look like the second bird had the characteristic white head and I thought it must have been a younger eagle coming into maturity.  While eagle courtship rituals are spectacular displays of aerial acrobatics, it is nest building that cements the bond between male and female.  The male stays with the female to help incubate the eggs and feed the offspring.  According to Wayne Mones, “monogamy is advantageous only when nesting and parenting responsibilities demand an extraordinary investment of energy by both parents.  When the two flew over to a nearby branch I saw they both had white heads.  They were a mated pair reclaiming their nest for the spring.

THOUGHTS:  Contrary to popular legend, there is no evidence that Benjamin Franklin publicly supported the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) rather than the bald eagle as a symbol of the US.  However, in a letter written to his daughter in 1784 he stated his personal distaste for eagle behavior.  “For my own part.  I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country.  He is a bird of bad moral character.”  Franklin believed our founders focused on perception when choosing the national bird.  Human prejudice also relies on perception rather than actions.  Looking the “right” way does not imply good character.  Character is determined by how we treat each other.  Do the work.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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