What is a Dirty Eagle?

I first heard the term “dirty eagle” from my uncle following an incident where a bald eagle was killed near my family’s home in western Massachusetts. I remember excitedly exclaiming “a what, now?!”

A young bald eagle that has made it through the tough trials of its former fledgling years will start to develop its chocolate brown feathers and white crown and tail at about the 3rd-5th year of its life. While this is happening, it can be largely unrecognizable as an eagle, thus the more common term for this pattern of feathers is called “Osprey Head” (read more about it here). But really what it looks like is a bald eagle with a bunch of mud thrown on its face. Many think they’re like a large vulture or get confused with other large hawks. But “Dirty Eagle” was definitely something I immediately fell in love with.

They are a fierce predator, majestic, and symbolic for our nation. But for me, they’re a beloved member of the village I grew up in. You see, bald eagles have been nesting near my family’s home for since the early oughts, and I have watched and learned about them along with my family since. My uncle is really the braintrust behind the telescope and telephoto lenses, watching their mating, nesting, and hunting patterns throughout the year. But I have learned all about what a fledgling goes through during its first few years, being preyed upon by a great horned owl or other eagles, many don’t survive.

Then we found out one of our mating pair was struck. Being approximately 29 years old (after an eagle gets it’s adult feathers at 5 years or so it is impossible to tell it’s age) we thought it was the end of the nest in front of our house. The remaining eagle would most likely not pair again.

And then we saw it. I was out back with a dear friend enjoying the summer weather, and this large bird I couldn’t figure out swooped over the field about 300 feet away. What was that that thing?

My family convened next morning for breakfast and we discussed what local bird conservators had been saying. But for me, it was hope. That bird, and its existence meant one had survived. Not only had it survived, it was young and ready to take over. I noticed though it didn’t stay and suddenly other eagles were looking to the nest too. There were others in the area that those two had kept good territory from. There was a booming population and it had to fight for its space.

Who is a Dirty Eagle?

The reason I draw such a liking to this bird is that I consider myself on the same adventure. Just over 4 years ago I was nearly killed in a tragic accident. The resulting head injury flipped my senses upside down, reversed any kind of logic and landscape that I was used to, and really changed my perspective. My body went through the same change, as I lost more than half of my body weight, learned to do things with the opposite hand, even my feet changed size. It’s getting very hard to tell how old I am, both because of my looks and because of my experience, and so I’ve thrown a lot to the wind. When everything is taken away from you, your sense of self, your relationships, your financial well being–when you have to survive and start something new on your own–what have you got to lose? This eagle in transition–this fierce and dirty majesty–this is my tome.