Bird Watcher's General Store

Eagles In The Movies - 05/21/10


Dear Bird Folks,

I have done some behind-the-scenes work for several movies and TV shows. While working on one of the shows an animal handler told me a little Hollywood secret. He said that if a scene required an eagle, they'd often use African Bald Eagles instead of American Bald Eagles. He said the reason for this is because African eagles have much whiter heads. Is this true?

- Scott, Los Angeles, CA

Probably, Scott,

Hollywood has never liked the American Bald Eagle. In particular they don't like the way our Bald Eagle sounds. Filmmakers hate to spend millions producing a dramatic outdoor scene only to have the scene spoiled when the star eagle lets loose with its little squeaky voice. It's embarrassing. The voice of our national symbol sounds like a cross between a dog toy and Betty Boop. Voice coaches have tried to teach the eagles to speak from their diaphragms, but no matter how hard they try they still sound like Betty Boop. To remedy this predicament Hollywood brings in Red-tailed Hawks to do voice-overs. Red-tails give those bone-chilling screams that movie directors love. The problem is red-tails are demanding and temperamental, and often won't leave their trailer unless their endless demands are met. (Chocolate covered squirrels and deep fried chipmunks aren't as easy to find as you might think.) Now, according to you, Scott, our eagles are being replaced by foreign eagles. Wow! Even our birds are having their jobs outsourced. I guess it was only a matter of time.

Here's what I know about the African Bald Eagle: there isn't one. No such species with that name exists. This means the guy who told you that story was either telling you a tall tale or he had been smoking something that should only be used for medicinal purposes. However, Africa does have a fish eagle and this fish eagle does have a white head. But, the two eagles don't look enough alike to be used interchangeably. It should be obvious to most folks that they are two different birds. That would be like using me as a body double for Tom Cruise. It wouldn't work. I could get by as George Clooney maybe, but I'm a much too tall to be a convincing Tom Cruise.

As everyone knows, our Bald Eagle gets its name from its white head. (Well, everyone knows except for a whacky customer who tried to tell me the name came from the bird's lack of leg feathers. Talk about smoking too much of something medicinal.) While the head of an African Fish Eagle is also white, the white feathers on this bird run down the front of its chest like a bib. With its white head and white bib the fish eagle looks very much like its wearing one of those funky outfits that British judges wear. Really. No, seriously. That's what they look like.

The African Fish Eagle is a large bird of prey and can be found just about anywhere in the southern half of Africa where fish are found. These powerful birds can capture and fly away with a fish weighing as much as four pounds. Sometimes they'll catch a fish that is too big for them to carry. But, like all fishermen, they don't like to give up a good catch. Instead of releasing the jumbo fish, an eagle will simply uses its wings as oars and paddle the fish to shore. Then, after first having its picture taken with its catch (another fisherman thing), the bird is ready to have lunch. While fish are their main food source, they are quite capable of taking much larger prey, including flamingos, turtles, and small crocs. (I'm taking about crocs the reptiles, not those goofy shoe things.)

Even though fish eagles are excellent hunters, they aren't above stealing an easy meal now and then. Occasionally, they'll swoop down and swipe a fish from unsuspecting herons and pelicans, which are quite helpless to do anything about it. After having a good meal, fish eagles are basically done for the day. They may spend as much as 90% of their time just sitting and watching the world go by. Big deal. I have a sixteen-year-old who does the same thing.

As I mentioned earlier the voice of the American Bald Eagle is kind of wimpy, but the African Fish Eagle's voice is nothing to be ashamed of. Their call is loud and haunting, sounding like a cross between a loon, a hyena and England's Susan Boyle. It is apparently fairly easy to tell the male's call from the female's. The larger female eagle has a much raspier voice than her mate, probably from too many cheap cigarettes. The call of the fish eagle is one of Africa's signature sounds. One might think that the sounds most associated with Africa would be that of elephants or lions, but many visitors report that the ubiquitous call of the fish eagle is the sound most embedded in their memory.

Africa does not have a bird with the common name of "Bald Eagle," Scott, but I can't say for sure that Hollywood has never tried to pass an African Fish Eagle off as an American Bald Eagle. I wouldn't put it past them. They can do some amazing things with makeup; just look what they've done with Susan Boyle.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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