Searching for Gold
I’m looking for a bird, but not just any old bird. I’m looking for Dad’s golden eagle. And I’m not stopping until I find it.
Dad said it was the most magnificent, most spectacular bird he’d ever seen, and that’s saying something, because Dad had seen more birds than John Audubon himself. And if you don’t know who John Audubon was, he was like the Beatles of birding. Yeah, he was that famous.
This golden eagle’s wings were wider than the creek behind our house, and its talons were the size of bulldozer claws. Dad saw the golden eagle swoop
down near Miss Dorothy’s pond and snatch a rabbit the size of a lawn mower. The most unique thing about the golden eagle was that it had a gray spot on its wing. Dad called it a birthmark. A birthmark! Can you believe birds have birthmarks?
Dad told everyone about the golden eagle, including his friends in his local birding group. He wasn’t expecting to see such a spectacular bird, so he didn’t have a camera with him. And without a picture, no one believed him.
But Dad stood by his golden eagle story.
After a while his friends said they were sick of his lies and told him to take his stories elsewhere. They even voted him out of their birding group. So much for being “professional” friends.
The rumors got so bad that other birding groups wanted nothing to do with him. They thought the golden eagle (and Dad) was a big joke.
Still, Dad never gave up. We went looking for the golden eagle at least once a month. He said that seeing a bird that magnificent was the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime sighting, but I hadn’t used my once-in-a-lifetime card yet, so there was a chance we could see it.
He promised it would eventually come back, and I’m
going to be here when it happens. But since Dad’s no longer here to defend his story, finding that golden eagle and restoring his reputation depends on one person.
So here I am—just me, my bike, my binoculars, and my backpack—on the very last day of summer vacation, the day before seventh grade begins, looking for that golden eagle at Miss Dorothy’s place, which sits at the far end of my neighborhood.
I walk around Miss Dorothy’s pond while twigs crunch under my shoes. The late afternoon sun cooks the black water, and the smell of algae and dead fish slaps me in the face. I’ve been here a thousand times, and the smell is so bad that I still have to cover my nose with my T-shirt. The end of summer is the worst, because on hot and humid days like today, the stench burns your nose hairs and sticks to your clothes.
High up in an oak tree, a house finch lets out a long, complicated warble that ends in a low-pitched slur.
Then a different call—cak-cak-cak—overtakes the singsongy chatter and echoes through the trees.
She was born twelve years ago, the same year as me, which is pretty old for a Cooper’s hawk. She wears speckled plumage like a lot of ordinary hawks, but Coop is far from ordinary. First off, she’s really old. Second, she only has one eye.
Dad said she lost it to a black vulture in midair. Coop won the fight, because the vulture flew away from Coop’s territory and never came back.
Hawks are supposed to have better eyesight than Superman. Their eyes drive the hunt. That’s how they eat, how they survive. But somehow Coop has made it this long. Dad always called her a “tough son of a gun,” and that’s exactly what I’m going to have to be if I want to find that golden eagle.
Looking through my binoculars, I find Coop swooping overhead, searching for her next meal. She’s used to hunting with me around, so she won’t mind if I watch her do her thing.
She lands quietly on a branch and scopes the ground.
Near the pond something stirs in the tall cattails.
I crouch low in the brush, adjusting the shoulder
straps of my backpack, keeping my binoculars steady. Seeing Coop hunt never gets old.
A rabbit suddenly leaps out from the cattails and races for cover under a pile of branches.
From high above, Coop launches off the tree and dives straight toward the rabbit. She sinks her talons into the rabbit’s back and takes off into the sky, but halfway back to her nest she lets go. The rabbit free-falls and splashes into the black pond.
Sometimes that happens. It’s part of nature.
Dad said the food chain is brutal and that most people don’t have the emotional detachment to see it in action. To be honest, seeing a living being take its last breath is not something I’m interested in doing again, but I guess it comes with the territory of studying birds.
I check my watch and decide I’d better get home for dinner before Mom comes looking for me.
Before I leave Miss Dorothy’s place, I search around the pond for traces of the golden eagle’s diet. A partially eaten rabbit or bird. The tail of a field mouse. Mauled squirrels or chipmunks.
But there’s nothing.
hoping the golden eagle will show up closer to winter, during migration season. That’s probably my best chance to see it.
“Eddie,” Dad told me, “in order to see a bird like the golden eagle, you have to catch it on the move, while it’s going from one home to the next. They’re very rare here in Indiana, but spotting it during the fall or winter might be our big chance.”
So finding it on the move is my plan, and I’m sticking to it.
Before I leave, I sit under a tree. I take my bird journal out of my backpack, flip to a clean page in the Raptors section, and write:
Bird: Golden eagle
Location: Miss Dorothy’s place
Note: Increase search time closer to migration season.
Dad: Our bird is going to come back, I just know it.
And when it does, everyone will know the truth.