With the warming of the air, the signs of spring begin. The return of this old friend to his favorite post in the old oak tree overlooking the lake is officially the first. I heard him one afternoon, reinstating his dominance over favorite hunting grounds for all the world to hear. He peered at me with his sharp yellow eye through the branches, skeptical of my attempts to find an angle that didn’t make it look like he was holding a stick in his beak (as you can see I was unsuccessful, so let’s just pretend he was grabbing it to add to his nest).
And then, peering up at his grand figure in the branches up there against the blue, I thought of how to describe the call I heard, and came up short. How, exactly, do you describe the call of an eagle? I thought someone more learned in the field of ornithology (the study of birds) than me would have a good answer—but I must say that I was disappointed.
My sources basically couldn’t agree on how to categorize the call of a bald eagle, other than that it was too musical to be called a screech, but not musical enough to be called a song. Some call it a combination of high pitched “whistling” and “piping” (Irish penny whistle, anyone?). Some call it “chattering”, as though it were a squirrel. Still others liken it to “chirping”, oddly bringing the largest bird of prey down to the level of a songbird at the bird feeder. Others go so low as to call it “squeaking”, as though it were a mouse, or, worst yet, “squealing”, which brings to mind a very unhappy pig. I thought of “trilling”, but even that conjures more images of tree frogs and raccoons in my mind than those of soaring eagles. “Twittering”, perhaps? But somehow that just reminds me of a cross old owl scowling at a lot of happily love-sick songbirds in “Bambi”, not a bird who bears the weight of being a national symbol on his shoulders. Come on, now! Is it too much to ask for a word that accurately describes the sound, but still manages to embody the dignity of such a majestic bird?
(To be clear, this is the call I’m talking about, not the peal call of alarm which really is more like screeching.)
So, based on that sound recording, how would you vote to finish this sentence? The eagle __________. (Whistled, piped, chattered, chirped, squeaked, squealed, trilled, twittered, or you fill in the blank with something I haven’t thought of.) Chickens cluck, geese honk, crows caw, swans trumpet, owls hoot—but what do eagles do? Do you think it can be boiled down to a single descriptive word—or not?
I’m somewhat tempted to side with the writer of Proverbs on this point. Describing the voice of the eagle in one word is a mystery that I might have to be content dismissing as “too wonderful for me” and, apparently, the English language. Though, to be perfectly fair and in context, in this case I think this writer was more in awe of the mystery of flight than flummoxed by a fruitless late night Google search for an apparently nonexistent perfect word.
“Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky…” (Proverbs 30:18-19)