A good number of motivational speakers across the world have used the tale of eagle’s rebirth to inspire loads of people. According to the story, generally told through a PowerPoint presentation, eagle is the most long living bird with a lifespan of around 50 years. But when it crosses 20 years of age, its beak gets ‘bent’, its ‘flexible’ talons are no longer effective and its wings get stuck to its chest from the weight of its heavy feathers making it difficult to fly. This leaves eagle with only two choice — to die or to go through “a painful process of change that lasts 60 days”.
The ‘painful process’ referred to is the one wherein the eagle flies to the top of a mountain and sits at its nest and hits the rock with its beak repeatedly and determinedly until the beak breaks. The eagle waits until the beak grows back on afresh, after which it plucks off its talons, and when the talons grow back, it proceeds to pluck out its feathers to have new feathers take their place. And when the new feathers are back, according to the presentation, “after five months, the eagle takes its famous flight of rebirth and lives for 30 more years.” Then there is a longish inspirational lecture of leaving one’s old self behind and jettisoning bad, old memories together with other past burdens to start afresh like the eagle.
There are many problems with this story right from the start, its inspirations value notwithstanding. First, five months are not 60 days. So, if the eagle takes its famous flight “after five months”, but the “painful process” lasts only “60 days”, what happens during the remaining 90 days? The eagle remains without its talons or beak for months, and without both, it cannot hunt and eat. It’s the top of the mountain, where the conditions are hard, and the eagle remains there without food for five months or two months, depending upon which part of the same version of the story one chooses to believe. However, some of the presentations in circulations have corrected the basic calculation mistake and though everything else remains the same, including the pictures used in most cases, the 5 months stand corrected at 150 days. But it also means that the eagle survives without food for 5 months or 150 days, which is unlikely to the point of being near-impossible.
Even if that error is dismissed as a minor typographical one, the story, despite being inspiring, simply doesn’t ring true. It’s remarkable, but it’s fictional. To begin with, the beak of the eagle is sharp and is always turned down. Hence, the word ‘aquiline’. No eagle has a straight beak at any point of time in its life. So, the curved beak theory, as shown in the PowerPoint presentations, inspires no confidence.
Sharp vision, strong talons and beak are characteristic features of the ‘raptors’ or ‘birds of prey’, who hunt and feed on prey. The beak and talons are made of hard keratin, a bit like the fingernails of human beings, and new layers of keratin grow over the old layers giving them a sturdy structure. The talons, therefore, are strong and hard and are not ‘flexible’ as the story propounds. All raptors, including the eagles, keep their beaks and talons in very good condition by regularly cleaning and sharpening them by rubbing them against the rocks, stones and other hard surfaces. The layers making the beak and the talons grow throughout eagle’s life, which takes care of the wear and tear in regular course.
The idea of feather-plucking by eagles is also quite weak because feather replacement in birds occurs through a version of the process of molting, and is gradual because birds need sufficient feather density in order to maintain the body temperature and repel moisture. Molting is a regular process and the old feathers are regularly shed with new feathers taking their place cyclically in natural course. Therefore, an eagle doesn’t need to take a short trip up the mountains to lose all its feathers and get new ones in their place. It keeps happening every now and then, like in the case of any other bird.
As for the age, in certain presentations of the same kind, the eagle is claimed to live for as long as 70 years, but in nearly all such presentations the lifespan is claimed to be 50 or above. However, the well-documented fact is that the average lifespan of an eagle in the wild is around 30 years, and in captivity, under controlled environment, they might live up to 50 years, but the presentation, quite obviously, is not talking of an eagle reared and maintained in captivity. Furthermore, eagle is certainly not the bird with the longest lifespan. Many birds live much longer than eagle does. A few large parrots live to the age of 80 and the average lifespan of albatross is 50. The nature has not been unfairly kind to the eagles and has not equipped eagles with the ability to extend the duration of their lives at will as the inspirational presentations claim. So, that part of the story also doesn’t hold either.
Eagle is one of the most widely studied birds, and no credible study supports the inspirational story that these slides tell. On the contrary, there a great deal of scientific data to refute the story. The story, therefore, has doesn’t seem to have much going for it in the real world although it certainly is a fancy yarn apparently spun out of thin air by some imaginative speaker.
Yes, almost. But we might consider a few things before dismissing the story completely. Reportedly, it has been claimed by the purveyors of the story that since eagle doesn’t have to do much and has to just sit through the period of ‘rebirth’, it needs very little energy and can, for that reason, stay alive without food and water for that duration. Well, it’s not impossible, but certainly very improbable.
Yes, it is also true that eagles bang their beaks against rocks, but scientists believe that they do it in order to clean and sharpen their beaks. One might imagine that it is the beginning of the process of rebirth, but even then it is inconsistent with the story because the story claims that it happens at the top of the mountain, after which the eagle sits there and waits for the beak to grow back on. The beak replacement part of the story is not supported by any observation or study.
So far as the long age is concerned, the life expectancy of the eagles has increased and in some cases eagles have been reported to live upto 70 years, but those have been very rare cases. May be those were the eagles that went through this process of ‘rebirth’ although no study has found that so far.
To conclude, there is negligible factual support available to the story. So, it is very likely that it is just a fictional tale. But then, there is nothing wrong with inspiring fiction so long as it is not passed on as ‘fact’.
Originally written for Let’s Comply on November 18, 2015, but remained unpublished largely because factual verifications undertaken during the course of writing brought the veracity of the claims made in the ‘inspirational tale’ under question, and the story, as it turned out, no longer served the inspirational purposes it was set out to serve to begin with.