Symbols are What You Make of Them: On Eagle’s Wings

By Brian Kluepfel  

Much has been and will be written about the 2020 elections, but from the narrow point of view of birders, Joe Biden’s victory is a win against an administration that tried to amend, among other laws, the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

From a broader perspective, it is a victory for the environment, which to me means it’s a victory for everyone (though not everyone feels this way, obviously).  

The sturm und drang of recent times led me to thinking about symbolism, and in particular, our national symbol, the bald eagle. President-elect Biden quoted the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” in his Nov. 7 victory speech.

For its supporters, it’s a beautiful, majestic raptor, which is an appropriate icon, especially now that the ban on DDT has rescued it from extinction. Yet for the baldie’s detractors, they see a large bird which bullies other animals and steals their food. It’s not the only animal that does this, but Ben Franklin noted this habit in his argument against the United States embracing the bird as our symbol.  

Of course, the eagle is everywhere as a symbol. For example, Poland has had the bird on its coat of arms for centuries, through kingdoms, communism and democracy. The White Eagle remained while governments rose and fell. Of course, historians cannot forget that the National Socialists of Germany – Hitler’s gangsters – adopted the eagle as Germany’s symbol during a horrific time not too far in history’s rearview mirror.  

I believe that we humans must aspire to our better angels and better animal instincts; the eagle is only a sticker on your bumper or a painting in a gallery. We have to try to imbue ourselves with its strength and power while rejecting its thievery and bullying. We have that choice, every day.  

Another common avian symbol, a bit to our south, is the Andean condor. A magnificent bird – the world’s largest terrestrial bird, boasting a 10-foot-plus wingspan – the condor does not have murderous talons of the eagle, so it acts principally as a much-needed scavenger, cleaning up carcasses in a day that would take other predators far longer to dispense. Importantly, in terms of disease, it gets the nasty stuff out of the ecosystem in an efficient, quick manner.  

The immense condor has been, like the eagle, a symbolic spirit animal of Andean natives for millennia. Many tribes saw it a messenger between earth and the heavens. More recently, the Andean nations of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile have adopted it as their national bird. Seeing one this year near Salento, Colombia was indeed one of the greatest thrills of my birding life.  

But like the eagle, the condor has been misappropriated by bad people. In the 1970s, a cabal of South American dictators implemented a continent-wide “Operation Condor,” which resulted in the jailing and death of thousands of leftist sympathizers. (Most of the countries who adopted the condor as their symbol also allowed ‘Condor’ to kill thousands of their citizens.) The works of Pinochet, Banzer and their cohorts scarred a generation (60,000 deaths) and are a collective stain on humanity. The United States supported and helped to plan Operation Condor through several Democratic and Republican presidencies.  

Eagles are eagles; condors are condors. Make of them what you will as symbols. I hope they represent freedom and a respect for the natural world, wherever they fly. It is what you do as a human being every day that matters. How you treat others and the world around you speaks a lot louder than an eagle tattoo on your bicep.  

Brian Kluepfel is the editor of the Saw Mill River Audubon (SMRA) newsletter as well as an author for the bestselling travel guidebook series Lonely Planet. He encourages you to support SMRA’s activities.