Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

I live in a quiet neighborhood of Southeast Portland, but there was drama this morning just a few blocks from my house, where two male bald eagles got stuck together while fighting in mid-air for territorial rights, and fell into a birch tree in someone’s back yard.

We learned of this at the nearby dog park, so instead of going straight home, we made a detour to see for ourselves. I was stunned as we came up the block and I saw these magnificent, enormous birds entwined with each other and entangled in the branches of the the tree, about 40 feet above the ground.


There was a small crowd of neighbors gathered to watch, including a woman who volunteers with the Audubon Society and seemed to know what she was talking about. She told me that there had been strong disagreement among the onlookers about whom to call, or whether to make the call at all. Voices were raised.Image

Because bald eagles are a protected species, it is against federal law to touch them or interfere with them in any way. Attempting to untangle them from one another could be assumed to be a federal offense. But there they were, helpless, dangling in plain sight in a tree in a residential neighborhood less than one block from an elementary school, where young children, soon to be released from kindergarten, would be walking up the sidewalk.

Had this fight and entanglement between the eagles occurred out in the woods where no humans witnessed it, the eagles would probably have remained entangled and died in the tree. Their bodies eventually would have been consumed by crows or other raptors, and no one would have been the wiser.

But this was Southeast, a community of liberals, nature lovers and bleeding hearts. How could we just leave them there to die in our neighbor’s back yard?  Should nature be allowed to take its course without interference, which would likely result in death? Or should humans intervene and try to rescue these splendid birds? I was close to tears watching them struggle, thinking “If there is nothing else I can do, it is at least my responsibility to bear witness to this suffering.”

About twenty of us stood murmuring on the sidewalk and waiting for something to happen. Two local TV stations were already on site, the reporters watching closely through long lenses set up across the street. An arborist appeared with a bucket truck, which he backed up the closest driveway to get as near the base of the tree as possible.Image

Next appeared someone from Oregon Fish and Wildlife, closely followed by a small team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Then several people from the Audubon Society showed up, including a man who was a raptor expert. Huge nets on long poles were dragged out, and large cages resembling dog crates were hauled from the back of the F&W truck.

The eagles were alternately dangling in exhaustion and valiantly continuing their fight as they attempted to release themselves. The talons of the one hanging upside down were buried deeply in the thigh of the other, whose outspread wings were open over opposite branches of the tree.

I was holding my breath as the bucket, carrying two people wearing leather jackets and hard hats, slowly approached the birds. They were putting themselves in danger by approaching them — not just the danger of breaking federal law, but the physical danger of coming so close to these fierce and enormous birds.Image

As the bucket got closer, the terrified birds struggled more wildly against each other, clearly frightened by this approaching menace. Suddenly they separated, swooping low but not falling to the ground, and then soaring into the air and disappearing. A cry of relief went up from the bystanders, and I started to weep.

Was it relief that they had been released from entanglement? Was it awe at witnessing such glory? Was it celebration to see these magnificent creatures flying free again?  I don’t know. But I remember the wise words of my former minister, Frederica Leigh OBM, who said “where there are tears, there is truth.”

Reflecting on this event over dinner tonight, Duane and I were struggling to put some theological framework around the experience. Being versed in process theology, Duane was suggesting that God, observing all that is, was holding this event as part of objective immortality. And that God was luring all entities to choose love in the world, so that the eagles were becoming what they chose to be by disentangling and flying free.

I don’t speak the language of process theology. I just know that I was moved to tears by witnessing this event, and that the best possible outcome (according to my limited understanding) was what actually happened.

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“In Memoriam, A.H.H.”



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