I first heard about how a momma eagle “stirs up her nest” at a church service in about 1990. A visiting evangelist tugged at everyone’s heartstrings with his vivid message about how God takes care of us just like a mother eagle takes care of her babies.
As the story went, when a momma and daddy eagle are ready to have a family, they deliberately build an elaborate nest from broken and thorny branches, but line it with feathers, and soft down plucked from their own breasts, and fur from animals they have killed. Thus when the baby eagles hatch, they are warm and comfortable.
The parent eagles then spend many weeks of exhausting work, continually bringing food to the ravenously hungry growing babies–who just lie around the comfy nest in leisure like little couch potatoes. Of course eagles are “born to soar,” not just lie around. But why would a baby eagle bother learning to fly when life is so cozy? Thus the parents have to “stir up the nest,” as is mentioned in a passage in the Bible. The evangelist explained this means that they pull out and toss over the side all the soft feathers and down and fur, and leave the babies exposed to the uncomfortable pokings of the underlying thorny branches.
This makes the babies miserable and restless, and they may crawl up on the edge of the nest. As they watch the parent eagles hovering over them in the air, they may sense that they themselves were born to soar on the wind too, and should try flapping their wings! But peering down into the abyss below the nest, they are too fearful.
And thus on a certain fateful day, Momma and Daddy decide it is time to show them their destiny. Momma picks one of the babies up in her talons or beak, and streaks off to the sky with it. Baby is terrified, but Momma pays no attention to its plaintive peeps. Instead, suddenly she drops the baby. Down it tumbles through the air toward a sure death, but at the last instant, Daddy comes streaking down the sky, pulls up under baby, and baby lands safely on his back. Returned to the nest, baby is SOOOOO relieved … until suddenly Momma pulls the same stunt again! After a few times of this, baby begins “trying her wings” on the descent. And after a few of these attempts, suddenly the wings catch the air and she’s off soaring just like Momma and Daddy.
The evangelist explained to us that this is a marvelous metaphor straight from God’s creation about how God works with baby Christians. When we are first baptized and come into His family, He allows us a time of peacefulness and joy in our new life. But after a while, we will not grow spiritually unless we try our wings. Yet we may be so comfortable in our sheltered life, and the Real World out there seems so scary, that we avoid any notion of change. So God will “stir up our nest” by bringing uncomfortable experiences into our life. And at some point, He will “throw us to the wind” to force us to try our wings. But we need not worry … just as a baby eagle cannot fall faster than her Daddy can fly to rescue her and lift her back up to safety, so God will swoop down and rescue us every time.
Wow! What vivid imagery! How neat of God to build into nature such an amazing lesson, I thought as I heard the story for the first time so long ago.
When I got on the Internet in 1996, I was surprised to find embellished versions of the story about the Way of the Eagle all over the Net on inspirational websites. Some had Momma eagle pushing the babies off the side of the nest, and then actually pushing the nest itself off the cliff or high tree branch where it was, in order to keep the babies from returning to it. Others had Momma taking baby on her back to soar, and then “rolling” in the sky to dump him off.
A couple of years ago, I decided this was such a neat story that I would use it for one of my own inspirational seminars at a Christian retreat. So I went out to the Net to gather up some documentation and photos about just how this all worked in nature.
And that’s when I learned … NONE of what I’d heard about all this is true. At all. In the slightest. It is, to put it kindly, a Christian Urban Legend! To put it not so kindly, it is a pack o’ lies.
First off, no momma eagle is going to be able to pick up a “baby eagle” who is old enough to fly in her mouth or talons … nor could a daddy eagle catch it on his back. HERE is a “baby eagle” who is just about ready to take its first flight, at twelve weeks old.
And here it is next to its momma, so you can compare sizes. For, you see, “baby” eagles are almost as big as their parents at 6 weeks old. At 12 weeks, before they start using energy to fly, they may even weigh more than their parents.
And no, momma isn’t going to be “pushing” an eagle’s nest off a branch or a cliff. Eagles don’t make a new nest every year. They build on old ones, either their own or someone else’s. In the first year the average nest is about three feet across and a foot from top to bottom. Every year after, sometimes for up to 100 years, generations of eagles will add to a nest. A typical nest several years old may be five or six feet in radius, three or four feet thick, and can support a person’s weight. It is essentially an expanding platform, not a little bowl-shaped object in which baby birds can cuddle. A world’s record nest was nine feet across, twenty feet tall, and weighed more than two tons.
There are “Eagle Cams” all over the Net these days, letting viewers around the world watch the whole life cycle of eagles, from nest building right up to the babies taking their first flight and finally being all on their own. None of those Eagle Cams ever show anything like any part of the Way of the Eagle stories. Once you see those REAL nests you can see how silly the descriptions are of soft, cozy little nests gently lined with feathers. They look like THIS nest below, with a lumbering, growing baby golden eagle hanging out before he gets full grown and makes his first flight. The housekeeping is awful, and the babies sit around in their own poop, and on piles of animal bones and whole animal carcasses.
And once you see a real eagle taking its first flight you can see how silly the “momma dropping the baby” stories all are. The reality is that the full-grown “baby” eagles spend the last days before their first flight standing on the nest, stretching out their majestic wings, and beating the air with them. Since they are up so high, there are often breezes that come along and “lift” them gently off the nest unexpectedly and set them back down. Enough days of this, and at one point there is just the right combination of flapping and breeze … and off they go soaring. You can see an example of a first flight on this Youtube video.
Even more poignantly enlightening … in spite of the metaphorical encouragement in the phony story that “baby can’t fall faster than Daddy can fly,” some estimates place the death rate of eagles making their first flight as high as 40%. If they don’t catch just the right combination of wind and wing, they can indeed plummet to their death. Because no, there is no Daddy eagle to catch them on his back. This does not make for a very comforting metaphor for the Christian!
So where did the Christian Urban Legend come from? As best as I can tell, it can be traced back to a single sermon given in the 1970s at a major Pentecostal convention by a man named Ern Baxter, who told a version of the story. It would appear that he invented the elements of the story out of his own imagination, basing it loosely on assumptions he made about a couple of vague Bible passages. And it has taken on a life of its own since then.
It is unfortunate that this has happened, as it reflects poorly on Christians as being ignorant and gullible. One website connected to a park where eagles actually nest included a question, and answer by their park ranger, from a child who had heard the story from a parent or pastor and was wanting to gather details about the elements of the story. The ranger had to discreetly and gently explain to them that they had been told a myth, not scientific fact, which may have had value as a spiritual lesson, but was not at all based in reality.
I’ve come in recent years to see that inspirational Christian Urban Legends are often our era’s version of fables. Other cultures and earlier times had their folk tales, such as Aesop’s Grasshopper and the Ant, which were used to share life lessons.
But for some reason today many folks are more comfortable telling a tale if they are convinced it actually has a “scientific basis.” They feel that gives it more “credibility.” But of course, if it’s nonsense, and becomes recognized as nonsense by many readers, it detracts from the credibility even as a metaphor!
And we still like “anthropomorphizing” animals, just as Aesop did. Which makes the credibility go even lower if we try to place it in the midst of a “scientific” description. Here are some embellishments various authors have added to the eagle story:
The baby eaglet begins to tremble, “Mama is mad! Mama is mad!” … The mother eagle throws the eaglet out of the nest, who is scared, and jumps back into the nest which has bare thorns. When the scared eaglet jumps into the nest, he is pricked by the thorns. Shrieking and bleeding, he is wondering why the mother and father who love him so much, are torturing him. … But Mamma and Papa pay no attention to the baby’s cries for help, because they know it’s time she learns to soar. She was born to soar, but she doesn’t know it yet. They’ve got to show her what her destiny is.
No, even if the silly Way of the Eagle story was based in fact, the baby eagle wouldn’t “think” Momma went crazy! Baby eagles don’t psychoanalyze their parents. The parents wouldn’t be psychoanalyzing their eaglet’s timidity either. Both baby and parents are operating totally on instinct. The parent eagles are not about to hire a therapist for baby eagle!
Christian authors and speakers would be much better off just going back to openly and honestly creating fables to teach lessons if they aren’t going to use true science.
And none of that is necessary … the Bible is full of eagle imagery that makes great metaphors, without having to “make up” elaborate phony life stories for eagles.
After researching the roots of the classic Way of the Eagle story, I changed the focus of the seminar I mentioned earlier in this blog entry. It first covers a little background debunking the false story, but then goes on to explore how you really are “born to soar.”
You can watch that Born to Soar seminar at the link below.