Rarabbit For Breakfast?

My blog post “Fish for Breakfast” last May talked about an osprey’s partiality for sushi. Not many of you seemed to share the bird’s preference for a pescatarian meal early in the day, and I suspect that even fewer will relate to today’s offering. Unless you are an eagle, or have eagles in your family tree. But even then you might return the order to the kitchen with the request to get it well done.

When I espied this Bald Eagle during a December walk, I wasn’t the first to have done so. Unlike myself, the other observers did share a taste for what was on the menu. Not surprisingly, they were corvids, members of the family Corvidae that includes raven, crows, and magpies, all of whom eat carrion as part of their diet. They were definitely hoping to snatch at least parts of the poor rabbit from the eagle’s sharp talons, or to salvage pieces which might fall to the ground. And while all were squawking at and encroaching on the hunter, they didn’t dare approach close enough to seize the eagle’s meal.

Bald Eagle and Common Raven

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Many throughout history have admired eagles for their imposing looks, size, and strength, as well as majestic flight, and they are prominently displayed on flags and seals of various countries. The Great Seal of the Unites States, for one, features a Bald Eagle on the obverse. Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin was opposed to the choice of the eagle for the seal, and suggested the turkey instead. While this apocryphal story has been disproven, the following explains how it might have arisen.

When Franklin was tasked by the 1776 Continental Congress to come up with a possible design for the seal, alongside Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, he suggested a Moses-like figure parting the sea and washing away pharaoh in the process, alongside the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” It’s not a design that was eventually chosen—in 1872, after several revisions—but the reverse of the seal shows a thematically related Egyptian pyramid under construction, no doubt a comparison of the newly-founded United States to a once great and mighty empire.

And while Franklin might not have suggested to put the image of a turkey on the seal, he did, nonetheless, express his disapproval of the eagle as a symbol in a letter written to his daughter, Sarah Bache, on January 26, 1784, reacting to a new medal issued by the “Society of the Cincinnati,” a group of Continental Army veterans. This medal, like the Great Seal, also portrayed a Bald Eagle. Franklin wrote:

He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him. With all this injustice, he is never in good case, but like those among men who live by sharping and robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: the little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.

Franklin seemed to take pleasure in the fact that the bird depicted on the medal resembled a turkey, and further mused:

For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and served up at the wedding table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, (though a little vain and silly tis true, but not the worse emblem for that) a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.

Bald Eagle accosted by two American Crows and one magpie. He is getting ready to leave.

I don’t think my eagle had stolen his breakfast that particular morning and appeared completely oblivious of the discussions surrounding his morals and ethics. The constant pestering by his hungry retinue, on the other hand, seemed to exasperate him, and he took off with his prey, at which point I lost sight of him.

PS: Regarding a Bald Eagle’s diet, this is the information provided by Cornell’s All About Birds:

Fish of many kinds constitute the centerpiece of the Bald Eagle diet (common examples include salmon, herring, shad, and catfish), but these birds eat a wide variety of foods depending on what’s available. They eat birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates such as crabs, and mammals including rabbits and muskrats. They take their prey live, fresh, or as carrion. Bald Eagles sometimes gorge, ingesting a large amount of food and digesting it over several days. They can also survive fasting for many days, even weeks.

40 thoughts on “Rarabbit For Breakfast?

  1. Fascinating post, and some fine photos of the eagle and his breakfast. Franklin’s musings are very much their time, don’t you think, suggesting there is a moral dimension to animal behaviour whereas, in reality, animals just do what they have to do to make it through to the next day!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That is so interesting, Tanja! It is rather amusing from today´s point of view, what characteristics Franklin attributed to the eagle. If we were to talk about morals, there is probably no more immoral animal than the human one, but ah, let us not get into that.

    Your photos of the eagle are beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Not everyone—and that’s an understatement!—strives for accuracy. In our times, think how often you find people repeating something from a website without doing any verification of its factualness. From the evidence you’ve presented, it seems likely that someone read the passage from Franklin’s letter to his daughter, in which he unfavorably compared an eagle to a turkey. The person who read that would then have taken Franklin’s general opinion and would have transferred it to the specific case of designing a seal for the United States. Other people would then have propagated the mistaken attribution without doing due diligence about its accuracy. I haven’t done any historical research about that, so my hypothesis remains a hypothesis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the process you describe is exactly what happened in this case, Steve. I had heard that myth, and might have repeated it at some point, but luckily I came across an article recently that explained when Franklin made that negative statement about Bald Eagles.
      I haven’t studied his personal papers, but I wonder if there might actually be a journal or letter entry somewhere in which he criticizes the choice of the eagle for the Great Seal. It wouldn’t be surprising.


  4. It’s always interesting to watch predators either catch or consume their dinners — or breakfasts! I have some photos of a kestral eating what seems to be a baby bird. As hard as they sometimes have to work for their meal, it’s hard not to applaud their perseverance and skill. Franklin’s opinion notwithstanding, the eagle’s search for food is neither moral nor immoral; it simply is doing what’s necessary to feed itself and its young. If it (or the other birds) are clever enough to filch a bit of food from another? That’s rather admirable, too! (There’s little more amusing than watching gulls trying to snatch a fish out of a pelican’s beak!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to admit that I would rather not watch, especially the catching and killing part. I know it’s part of the cycle, and most animals (except for humans) can’t really consciously decide what to eat, but I take no pleasure in watching anybody die.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I completely forgot to mention your title. We used to have a dish for breakfast we called “Welsh Rarebit.” As I recall, it was something like toast or an English muffin with cheese or a cheese sauce, and perhaps some meat. When I saw your title, I wondered if you were playing with the name of that old dish!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Tanja, a fascinating analysis of the character of the eagle. I am much less in awe of him now. I was also ignorant about the turkey. Most enlightening!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is really a great series of photographs! Love the opportunity to watch a magnificent raptor with its prey. And you were in the right place to provide us with pictures of the whole thing!

    Would-be thieves abound but none are brave enough to actually try and take an Eagle’s meal, else they might be the next meal!

    Your lovely images bring back great memories of our landlord in the northeast Bavarian town of Hof. Once a month he and his wife treated us to Hassenpfeffer which was absolutely wonderful. And we didn’t even have to battle an eagle for it!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Wally. Being at the right place at the right time requires being out there as much as possible, which is something you also do!

      I’m always amazed at how bold some birds are near raptors, but I have yet to see them get attacked. The raptors usually seem annoyed and take off, especially if groups of birds gang up on them. Some of them must not like the taste of bird meat.

      I don’t think I ever had Hasenpfeffer in my life, but I know it’s popular. I had pet rabbits as an adolescent, and that’s when I refused to eat rabbit when it was offered, which wasn’t often. I eventually stopped eating meat altogether.


  7. Beyond the larger owls (which hate ‘dem baldies), I don’t think there are really any other birds that will willingly choose to take on an eagle alone, much less one with food – looks like those Raven’s tried to even up the odds ha. I have witness the mobbing as Franklin references, but I get the impression catching one in a bad mood may get a first hand experience with those talons (like that unfortunate rabbit). Not sure what your eagle population is up to out there, but the ones here are starting to shift their attention to fields rather than water and choosing to stay year round (one has taken up a residency a mile down from our house). Thanks for the additional background on this regal bird.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m always amazed when I see smaller birds gang up on a much bigger one, and most of the time the mob manages to drive off the raptor. I suspect they don’t want to expend the energy for a bird not to their liking.
      There are some Bald Eagles here year-round, but from what I understand, that’s always been the case.

      Liked by 1 person

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