John Carlson: Eagles Inspire Lofty Thoughts

A beautiful pair of bald eagles stare off into the distance. Photo by: David Ray SmithA beautiful pair of bald eagles stare off into the distance. Photo by: David Ray Smith

By: John Carlson—

History books teach us when our Founding Fathers were considering the animal to best symbolize the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin recommended the turkey.

OK. Good enough, Ben. You could have picked worse.

I have a soft spot for turkeys myself. Granted, it’s especially true when they are baked and sliced, with the slices piled between two pieces of rye bread generously slathered with mayonnaise. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking our forefathers erred in choosing the bald eagle.

It’s also hard to imagine there was a time when bald eagles nearly disappeared. Google it and you’ll learn the bird was considered endangered just fifty years ago, the result of  illegal shooting, habitat destruction and the impact of DDT. That infamously harmful pesticide wrought havoc on the bald eagle’s ability to reproduce, thinning the walls of its shells to the detriment of its chicks.

By 1963, there were so few nesting pairs in America, somebody actually counted them: 487.

Thankfully, federal legislation to save the birds was passed and enforced, the result being a remarkable recovery that has now seen the bald eagle removed from the endangered species list.

All of which helps explain why a couple Sundays ago, David Ray Smith was driving in the northern part of Delaware County when he spotted a nesting pair of bald eagles. Having left church shortly before, the Ball State University telecommunications graduate was heading out to lunch with his grandmother, Marveline, when they spotted the pair. Being without his camera, he called his father, who soon delivered it to him.

It’s probably not unusual for that noble bird to inspire such action. While the bald eagle is no longer endangered, it’s not something most urbanites see commonly, either. Sure, they are living around here, and some folks know exactly where you can spot them. Personally, I’ve only seen six or seven, and can still remember where and when those sightings occurred.  But David, it should be noted, felt an extra tug at his chest in sighting this pair.

The reason? Pure passion.

“I am just a nature and wildlife enthusiast,” he explained, his voice brimful of conviction and wonderment at his rendezvous with these two birds. The thing is, David’s conservationist fervor is usually directed toward what some might consider the polar opposite of bald eagles.

He loves turtles.

The roots of his devotion go back to when he was five. Fishing for bluegill at the Water Bowl, he accidentally landed a painted turtle with his Donald Duck pole and reel. Now his life’s goal is to head to Florida, where his graduate school intercultural immersion project was with the Longboat Key Turtle Watch, and resume working with sea and freshwater turtles.

In the meantime, through his Facebook account, he strives to raise awareness of turtle conservation efforts. He doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk and has for years, enthusiastically lending turtles a helping hand whenever he spots them crossing roads. How many has he assisted? Thousands, he  estimates. And if you’ve ever done the same, here’s something you may not have considered.  He takes pains to place them in the same direction they were originally headed, carelessly misdirecting one being of no benefit to the turtle. This sometimes had a stifling effect on car trips.

“My family knows when there’s a turtle in the road, we have to stop,” David explained.

But no, this time it was the eagles that caught his eye, and as he took their pictures, he was feeling certain emotions regarding those proud symbols of America. With a family history rooted in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, he comes by his native pride honestly. His grandmother’s great-aunt was the wife of no less an American hero than World War One Medal of Honor-winner Sgt. Alvin York.

As you may know, York led an attack killing twenty-five German soldiers and capturing one-hundred-thirty-two more. Being portrayed on the silver screen by film legend Gary Cooper was a pretty good measure of his notoriety.

But back to bald eagles …

“When I look at them, I see resilience,” explained David, who has overcome enough serious health problems to appreciate what the birds survived to flourish again. And what else does he feel toward them? “Gosh, just American pride. They’re strikingly beautiful creatures. Majestic creatures.”

Holder of a master’s degree in visual story-telling, he also noted how the increasingly popular practice of live-streaming webcam footage of nesting eagles, peregrine falcons and other such raptors has served the birds. Their fan base grows, and the more people care, the less chance there is that the bald eagle and other raptors will ever be threatened with extinction again.

What might work most in the bald eagle’s favor, though, is simple emotion, the way spotting one or two stirs a heart, or a feeling in the gut. I can speak from experience.

When my Dad died a couple years ago, somehow it was decided that the bald eagle was his spirit animal, something that took me aback. He was a man of math and science, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican with any spiritual bent strictly limited to his beliefs as a fervent Baptist. The thought of him claiming a spirit animal late in life seemed an unlikely departure from the norm to my sister Patty and me. Heading home from his funeral, in fact, Nancy and I were discussing it.

But as we did, driving west through the flat farm country east of Findlay, Ohio, our jaws dropped. Not fifty feet in front of our car, a beautiful dark bird with a stark white head swooped low as if in a silent farewell, then soared out of sight.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.