Birds of Prey

merlin-on-stump-smallerIt’s all in the eyes. I am standing in an awkward position in the Booth Bird Museum. A golden eagle perches on a remote Scottish crag a few feet above me. It glares at me as if I’m about to steal the bloody, dead rabbit clutched in its talons. I wouldn’t dream of it.

For starters, the eagle’s talons are bigger than my hands, and are tipped with claws like stilettos, and then there’s the reality that both the eagle and the rabbit have been dead for at least a century, and are now mounted in a glass case. The reason I’m standing in an awkward position, is that I’m drawing the eagle, and the neon light just above the giant bird is reflecting off the glass case, so if I stand upright I can’t see the eagle’s head, if I kneel I can’t see its feet, and if I sit on the floor the attendant comes along and tells me to stand up.

So I lean sideways, at an uncomfortable angle. Right now I’m drawing the eyes. I used to draw eyes as if they were flat. Then we dissected a pickled ox eye in biology, and I realized that they were like small golf balls, at least in humans. Now I’m drawing the eagle’s eye. Eagle’s eyes are not in the least like human eyes or ox eyes. In fact no other living creatures have eyes quite like birds of prey. They’re nothing like sapphires or whatever bad poets say about human eyes. They’re more like golden bowls filled with ice, or something far colder than ice––in the midst of which is a pupil as black as the empty space between the stars on a December night.

And now I’m trying to render this onto unlined paper with a 2B pencil. Why am I so fascinated by eagles, especially golden eagles? It’s not like we have anything in common. I have actually eaten a rabbit, but I didn’t kill it myself, instead my Uncle Tony shot it with his twelve bore shotgun. I’ll probably never stand on a precipice in the Highlands. I have no head for heights, and I’m not brave or strong. I don’t know if eagles are really courageous, but somehow they’ve always been symbols for the brave and the free.

Eagles somehow seem heroic, but there’s nothing heroic about me. I’m not a brave person, I’m not a strong person, and I’m in no way patient. In fact I’m getting bored with this drawing already. I have the eye now, and I have the beak, and the forehead, but I don’t really have the time to begin on what look like an infinite amount of feathers. Maybe it’s time to move onto the gyr-falcon, or the marsh harrier, and draw their eyes and beaks.

I glance over at the peregrine falcons just beyond the eagles. Little symbols indicate the male and the female, and I realize that maybe I do have something in common with birds of prey: the male is always significantly smaller then the female, and I’m pretty much on the small side. Do the males make the choice, or do the females? Does a male falcon choose the biggest female he can find? Or does the female choose the smallest male she can find? Either way they pair for life.

Now I’ve really finished drawing. Thinking about birds of prey having sex kills the whole feeling. They should be above sex. Maybe they should be eternal. I slide my sketchbook, eraser, and sharpener into my gas-mask case, and make my way out to the high street for a smoke.