Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Wings Like Beagles (and Other Myths)

Salvation can be a dangerous thing. Secure in our knowledge of God’s love for us and His provision of eternal life, we too willingly dispense with essentials such as scientific truth. As long as it gives us spiritual warm fuzzies, it must be true. Recently I, a lifelong amateur ornithologist, have been assailed repeatedly by this little ‘treatise’ about eagles, well-circulated on the Internet:

“Eagles are the most long-lived birds in the world. By the time they reach 40 years old, their claws will start to age, losing their effectiveness and making it hard for them to catch preys (sic). The lifespan of an eagle is up to 70 years old. But in order to live this long, it must make the toughest decision at 40. At 40, its beak is too long and curvy that it reaches its chest (sic.). Its wings, full of long, thickened feathers, are too heavy for easy flying. The eagle is left with 2 choices - do nothing and await its death or go through a painful period of transformation and renewal.

“For 150 days, it first trains itself to fly beyond the high mountains, build and live in its nest and cease all flying activities. It then begins to knock its beak against granite rocks till the beak is completely removed. When a new beak is grown, the eagle will use it to remove all its old claws and await quietly for new ones to be fully grown. When the new claws are fully grown, the eagle will use them to remove all its feathers, one by one. Five months later, when its new feathers are fully grown, it will soar in the sky again with renewed strength and is able to live for the next 30 years…”

Wow. Everything the ornithologists know is wrong, wrong, wrong. After all, how could Christians be wrong about science?

Okay, see my opening paragraph for my answer. Meanwhile, I’m going to refute virtually everything in this made-up factoid just for the sake of setting the record straight. Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we need to be hoodwinked by every urban legend perpetrated in God’s name.

First off, eagles do in fact live a long time, but their lifespan is closer to 40 years in the wild, with some captive examples living longer. One version of this story maintains that eagles don’t even reach reproductive age until 40. Since most eagles don’t end up living this long, nesting pairs would be rare indeed. Real scientists include the Andean condor, the wandering albatross and the sulfur-crested cockatoo among the longest-lived birds (75, 80, and 80 years, respectively), but don’t confuse me with facts, okay?

As for their ‘aging claws’, this is a complete fabrication. No bird species is characterized by some physiological change in the structural integrity of its claws due to age. A parakeet’s claws will grow long if unchecked by some abrasive agent (i.e ., sandpaper on its perch), but this avian midlife crisis is nonexistent. (And ‘preys’ is the third person simple tense of the verb “to prey”, not a plural noun.) Catching ‘preys’ is akin to herding ‘sheeps’ or hunting ‘deers’.

On to the beak! “(T)oo long and curvy that it reaches its chest”, eh? Now, is it a) too long and curvy to reach the eagle’s chest, or b) so long and curvy that it actually does so? If I were fabricating such a tall tale, I’d at least try to apply some grammatical accuracy in hopes of fooling somebody. Unfortunately, we Christians don’t see atrocious grammar as a possible warning about the overall quality of the info that reaches us. Small wonder so many people outside the church take us for idiots. Meanwhile, no eagle has ever been documented as having such a ‘long, curvy beak’ (and if it had one, how did it survive long enough to grow it?) The author of this fable must have owned a parakeet, since its beak will indeed grow toward its chest unless kept in check with a cuttlebone (available at your local pet store, right next to the eagle-blend bird seed and eagle-sized cage toys.)

Now our eagle ponders a conscious choice, where all other animals are guided by God-given instinct: To be or not to be? To go on with those blunt, flabby claws and that spiral beak is obvious suicide. Not to mention those “wings, full of long, thickened feathers, are too heavy for easy flying”. Too bad eagles don’t moult like other birds! (If you’re not familiar with the terms “moult” and “moulting”, go grab a dictionary and make a shocking discovery.) I, for one, am dying to see one of those “long, thickened feathers”, hitherto undescribed by any real scientist. (Flight feathers are dead structures composed of keratin, and once they reach their full size they don’t grow any more.)

Not bizarre enough for you yet? Now our 40 year old eagle is going into ‘150 days of training‘ (tracked and observed, we are expected to believe, by some evangelical ornithologist with unlimited mobility and five months to spare) . It will learn to ‘fly beyond the high mountains’ (I guess it used to live somewhere else) and spend five months in its nest (built, if you follow the story sequentially, with those useless claws and beak, and useless feathers.) There must be a big ol’ piece of granite handy in its nest, since our soon-to-be-unfeathered friend will beat its brains out against it until its beak falls off. (Never mind that birds don’t shed their beaks , and if they lose them in an accident they generally die.) Now, having been somehow fed a bland hospital diet by someone (its mate?) long enough to grow a new one, those claws gotta go. Bite ‘em off, Sam! I occasionally bite my nails, too. These new talons will not only be good for hunting, but first we’ll test their dexterity by plucking out “all its feathers, one by one”. (Remember, eagles don’t moult like all the other birds, right?), Hey, just a few more months starving in this nest, freezing its tail off (except that its tail hasn’t grown back enough yet to be frozen off) and voilá! A renewed eagle, fit for the top of a flagpole.

Forgive my sarcasm, but I can’t stand it anymore. (I recently stopped a bible teacher in mid-lecture from sharing this with my students, much to the detriment of our relationship and to my already-strained credibility as a patient person.) Eagles were the first thing I was ever interested in as a child, and their honor deserves defense. How much more the Faith Once Given? When we allow such drivel to masquerade as spiritual nourishment, we do untold harm to our credibility and to our God-given intellect. God saw fit to use the eagle as a symbol of renewed strength in Isaiah 40; He doesn’t need us to fabricate folk ornithology to back up His word. There may be no stopping this doggerel from wafting about cyberspace like, well, as the prophet says…

“We gave birth, it seems, only to wind.” (Isaiah 26:18)

…but let us at least not teach it in Sunday school, or forward it (or its ilk) to the inboxes of unsuspecting Christians and non-Christians who need enlightenment far more than they need well-intended lies about God’s creation.


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