Eagle Identity

A golden eagle being admired on "eagle hill" in Edinburgh? No, Budapest.
A golden eagle being admired on “eagle hill”. In Edinburgh? No, Budapest.

Disappointing but somewhat inevitable to see the new campaign to make the golden eagle “Scotland’s National Bird” – a push being driven by the RSPB and associated celebrities. According to a new petition, the official promotion of golden eagles as “the symbols of Scotland” would give them the international significance of thistles, tartan and the lion rampant, focusing our collective mind on the conservation of this beautiful bird. Or at least, that is what the petition says.

From my perspective, this is a thoroughly uninspired, insipid decision which misses a key conservation opportunity. Aside from anything else, aligning with golden eagles would say nothing unique about Scotland. More or less every country in the world has used eagles in its heraldry at some stage, and twenty six countries (as diverse as Germany, Ghana, Kazakhstan and Mexico) currently have an eagle as their “national bird”, either on a flag or as a national symbol. The huge majority of these “nation-defining” eagles are golden eagles. The fact that every country claims ownership of the eagle reveals more about human beings and their aspirations than the character and aspect of individual nations.

If you show the well-meaning general public a photograph of their country’s apex predator, you can be sure that they will say it is their favourite. The Persians, the Romans and even Hitler all used eagles to make a statement about majestic power and beauty. In this historical and cultural human context, the push to make golden eagles Scotland’s national birds seems so staggeringly dull and uninspired that it hardly warrants mention. Of course we want to be associated with eagles, because eagles are so “awesome” – (aren’t birds brilliant etc etc). Yes, eagles are great, but they are not the species to represent Scotland. Incidentally, and by way of entertaining contrast, Wikipedia says that Britain’s national bird is the robin.

Simmering beneath the press releases is an unspoken gesture to shooting at large, paraphrased simply as “this will help to end raptor persecution”. Readers of this blog know (of course) that I have nothing to do with raptor persecution and wholly condemn it, but I feel disappointed that this opportunity to champion Scotland’s fantastic bird life has been frittered on an “easy win” political tool. Although raptor persecution is not mentioned in the official petition put forward by the RSPB, tweets, blogs and comments over the past few days have parted the words and reveal the true meaning of the drive, neatly crystallised by the usually apolitical SOC in a tweet which read “Help make the Golden Eagle Scotland’s national bird and help shine a light on those still killing our birds of prey”.

People appear to be signing the petition not because they think golden eagles should be the “national bird”, but because they want to make a statement against raptor persecution – which is great, but it is not what designating a “national bird” is really about. When the Egyptians ask us why we Scots want to share their national bird which has been used as a symbol in Egypt since the time of the pharoahs, we will say “because we had a problem with some gamekeepers killing eagles and we thought it would help”. The situation is so loaded that when I voiced a protest against golden eagles as the “national bird” on Twitter, it was interpreted as direct complicity in raptor persecution.

These things are usually designed to generate discussion and get us all talking about how “brilliant” nature is, but the political overtone represents a missed opportunity. Readers of this blog will take it as read that I would like to see black grouse named as our “national birds”, since red grouse are already our unofficial mascots, but it would be pointless to back either species, or any gamebird for that matter. They have such a political story that lagopus lagopus scotica, (a bird that was custom-built to represent Scotland and is the screamingly obvious choice) is overlooked on account of its sporting associations.  Fortunately, there are so many possibilities that it has given me a few minutes of pleasure to weigh the up pros and cons of an entire range of species and assess their suitability for the role – and despite the undisputed “Nature’s Voice” opinion, there are quite a few contenders.

There is the Scottish Crossbill, the only species that is never found anywhere else, and the capercaillie, a bird steeped in the mythology of the ancient Caledonian forest. You could have the corncrake, the symbol of the florid crofter’s machair, or the ptarmigan, haunting the desolate scree banks above the cloud. It is disappointing that we have forgotten the sporty little dipper, which lurks and bobs on tumbling burns, and overlook again the baleful whaups, peeweets and seapies. I could even be stirred to back the barnacle goose, which has recovered from scarcity thanks (in part) to Scottish support, or the bog owl, which despite being a fair weather friend is by far my favourite raptor.

But after some discussion and debate, it is my opinion (for the very little it is worth), that the best candidate for Scotland’s “National Bird” would be the gannet; a species that reeks of cliffs and spume and the raging North Atlantic. 68% of the world’s population of Northern Gannets breeds in Britain, and by far the largest colonies are at St Kilda and Bass Rock. In fact, the gannet’s latin name is Sula Bassanus, taking its name from the basalt plug off North Berwick. Get close to the Bass during a feeding frenzy and you’ll see a spectacle that is every bit as staggering and memorable as a glimpse of a golden eagle. I am predominantly a land-lubber, but gannets have added sparks of breath-taking beauty to days spent on boats from Tigh na Bruaich to the Moray Firth. Perhaps my most cherished memory of all time is of passing the Shiant Isles at first light on a commercial fishing boat and swinging down into the Little Minch with gannets falling like hail all around me. To me, those strong, sweeping shapes say far more about Scotland than any eagle.

And if choosing our “national bird” needs to be political, then the dashing gannet is a great introduction to an entire pantheon of seabirds, many of which are currently suffering huge declines and need our help more than ever before. What better way to get the people of Scotland talking about the shocking collapse in our seabird populations than by publicising and promoting a characteristic, stunning seabird. We have seven and a half thousand miles of coastline in Scotland, and it’s time we started to pay attention to what goes on there. Having apparently plumped for the eye-rollingly obvious, the RSPB have missed a fine opportunity to do some real good.

If nothing else, I note that some daring enthusiast has amended Wikipedia to say that the eagle is already the “official” bird of Scotland. So it must be true.

Bass rock groaning under the weight of 150,000 gannets
Bass rock groaning under the weight of 150,000 gannets

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