previous next


Of all the birds with which we are acquainted, the eagle is looked upon as the most noble, and the most remarkable for its strength. There are six1 different kinds; the one called "melanætos"2 by the Greeks, and "valeria" in our language, the least in size of them all, but the most remarkable for its strength, is of a blackish colour. It is the only one among all, the eagles that feeds its young; for the others, as we shall mention just now, drive them away; it is the only one too that has neither cry nor murmur; it is an inhabitant of the mountains. The second kind is the pygargus,3 an inhabitant of the cities and plains, and distinguished by the whiteness of its tail. The third is the morphnos,4 which Homer also calls the "perenos," while others, again, call it the "plangus" and the "anataria;" it is the second in size and strength, and dwells in the vicinity of lakes. Phemonoë, who was styled the "daughter of Apollo," has stated that this eagle has teeth, but that it has neither voice nor tongue; she says also that it is the blackest of all the eagles, and has a longer tail than the rest; Bœus is of the same opinion. This eagle has the instinct to break the shell of the tortoise by letting it fall from aloft, a circumstance which caused the death of the poet Æschylus. An oracle, it is said, had predicted his death on that day by the fall of a house, upon which he took the precaution of trusting himself only under the canopy of the heavens.

The fourth kind of eagle is the "percnopterus,"5 also called the "oripelargus;"6 it has much the appearance of the vulture, with remarkably small wings, while the rest of the body is larger than the others; but it is of a timid and degenerate nature, so much so, that even a raven can beat it. It is always famishing and ravenous, and has a plaintive murmuring cry. It is the only one among the eagles that will carry off the dead carcase; the others settle on the spot where they have killed their prey. The character of this species causes the fifth one to be known by the distinctive name of "gnesios,"7 as being the genuine eagle, and the only one of untainted lineage; it is of moderate size, of rather reddish colour, and rarely to be met with. The haliætus8 is the last, and is remarkable for its bright and piercing eye. It poises itself aloft, and the moment it catches sight of a fish in the sea below, pounces headlong upon it, and cleaving the water with its breast, carries off its prey.

The eagle which we have mentioned as forming the third species, pursues the aquatic birds in the vicinity of standing waters: in order to make their escape they plunge into the water every now and then, until at length they are overtaken by lassitude and sleep, upon which the eagle immediately seizes them. The contest that takes place is really a sight worthy to be seen. The bird makes for the shore to seek a refuge, and especially if there should happen to be a bed of reeds there; while in the meantime the eagle endeavours to drive it away with repeated blows of its wings, and tumbles into the water in its attempts to seize it. While it is standing on the shore its shadow is seen by the bird, which immediately dives beneath, and then making its way in an opposite direction, emerges at some point at which it thinks it is the least likely to be looked for. This is the reason why these birds swim in flocks, for when in large numbers they are in no danger from the enemy; as by dashing up the spray with their wings they blind him.

Again, it often happens that the eagle is not able to carry the bird aloft on account of its weight, and in consequence they both of them sink together. The haliætus, and this one only, beats its young ones while in an unfledged state, with its wings, and forces9 them from time to time to look steadily upon the rays of the sun; and if it sees either of them wink, or even its eye water, it throws it headlong out of the nest, as being spurious and degenerate, while, on the other hand, it rears the one whose gaze remains fixed and steady. The haliætus10 is not a species of itself, but is an eagle of mixed breed: hence their produce are of the species known as the ossifrage, from which again is produced the smaller vulture; while this in its turn produces the large vulture, which, however, is quite barren.

Some writers add to the above a seventh kind, which they call the "bearded"11 eagle; the Tuscans, however, call it the ossifrage.

1 Cuvier remarks, that this passage is borrowed, with some changes, from Aristotle's "History of Animals," B. ix. c. 32, but that the account given by Pliny is not very easily explained, from the fact that the word eagle is not used by him in a rigorous acceptation of the word. Indeed it is only at the present day that any accurate knowledge has been obtained as to the different species of eagles, and the changes of colour to which they are subject with the advance of age; circumstances which have caused the species of them to be multiplied by naturalists. It is very doubtful, he says, whether Aristotle has distinguished the various kinds any better than Pliny; although Buffon, who himself was not very successful in distinguishing them, says that Aristotle understood more on the subject than the moderns.

2 μελαναετὸς, or the "black eagle." Cuvier says, that this description is copied exactly from Aristotle, Hist. Anim. B. ix. c. 32. This eagle, he says, cannot be, as is commonly supposed, the "common eagle." It can only be, he thinks, the "small" eagle, the female of which, according to Nauman and Savigny, when it is old is almost all black, and without spots; only the young being spotted.

3 From the Greek πυγὴ ἀργὴ, "white tail." Cuvier remarks, that this is copied exactly from Aristotle, except that he says nothing about the whiteness of the tail, which is an interpolation. The feathers as described agree with those of the common eagle, the Falco fulvus, which is strong enough to seize a fawn. As regards its habit, he says, of dwelling on plains, that would agree better with the Jean le blanc of the French, the Falco Gallicus; while the name of pygargus is commonly applied, at the present day, to the great sea-eagle, the Falco albicilla; which frequents lakes and the sea-shore, and therefore corresponds more nearly with the haliætus of Pliny.

4 Cuvier says, that he is almost tempted to believe that it is the balbusard, the Falco haliætus, that is here meant, as it has a black back, and lives in the vicinity of lakes. But then, he remarks, it lives on fish and not aquatic birds; while, on the other hand, the little eagle of Buffon, the Falco nævio, often seizes ducks and other aquatic animals. He is inclined then, notwithstanding the apparent confusion, to take this morphnos for the modern small eagle. The words μορφνὸς and περκνὸς signify "black."

5 From the Greek, meaning "black wing.

6 "Mountain stork." Buffon thinks that this is the great brown vulture; Cuvier, the great white-headed eagle.

7 γνήσιος. "True—Born," "genuine." Cuvier thinks that this may be the royal or imperial eagle, Falco imperialis.

8 The great sea-eagle, according to Cuvier, the varieties of which (in age) are called by Linnæus "Falco albicaudus," and "Falco ossifraga."

9 See Lucan, B. ix. 1. 902.

10 He contradicts himself, for he has already stated that it is the sixth species.

11 "Barbata," Cuvier takes it to be the læmmer-geyer, or Gypaëtus, the only bird of prey that has a beard.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Latin (Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff, 1906)
hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references to this page (2):
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (3):
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: