Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Authenticity of Eaglet Sermon Illustration

EagleFor those readers who attend church, you have most likely heard the sermons that use eagles as similes or metaphors. They usually mention how baby eagles (eaglets) learn to fly. Supposedly, the mother eagle takes the eaglet out for a flight, then drops the eaglet. The mother will, of course, catch the eaglet before it hits the ground. Eventually, the eaglet will learn to fly, but only because it's outside its "comfort zone," right? (if heard in a sermon, cue the transition to Christian application)

Recently, I began to wonder whether this actually process actually occurred in nature. Or perhaps it was just an embellishment of the truth?

When I search for phrases like "eaglet learn to fly drop," most of the results are Christian websites using the aforementioned metaphor, or similar ones. I ignored most of those and looked at a number of non-religious, just-the-facts-ma'am eagle websites. I do not recall that any of these sites made any mention of parent eagles dropping eaglets while on a flight. Snopes.com had nothing to say about this particular subject, although it does debunk another inspirational/motivational story wherein eagles supposedly mangle themselves in order to extend their lifespans.

Concerning how eaglets learn to fly:
Baby Birds of Minnesota — March - April 1994:

The time when the chicks leave the nest is called fledging. A bald eagle chick practices flapping its wings in the nest atop a tall pine. Next it tries beating its wings into the wind and taking short hops above the nest. One day, a big gust of wind catches the bird's open wings and whisks it away. The parents follow the young eagle on its first flight.

American Bald Eagle:
Baby eagles grow very fast; they start learning to fly when they are only 2 months old! This can be a very dangerous time for an eaglet, and many will end up on the ground. The parents will usually feed a grounded eaglet, but if the youngster is not able to fly soon, it may get eaten by a predator. If everything goes right, the eaglets are ready to leave the nest and hunt alone when they are 4-6 months old.

Channel Islands Live - Eagle FAQ:
The eaglet will take its first flight all by itself. Although an eaglet has been watching its parents fly from the nest for several months, instinct will take over for its first flight. The eaglet will do lots of wing exercises and will take short practice flights across the nest to develop muscle strength. Typically for its first flight, an eaglet will fly to a nearby branch or land on the ground.

The Eagle Nature Foundation:
The wing fluttering becomes stronger as the young eagles grow. Soon they hop about the nest flapping their wings as the begging gesture, unconsciously, becomes a wing strengthing exercise. The bolder and more restless move to the rim of the nest and soon into the supporting branches.

Finally the boldest eaglet will make up its mind to try its wings in earnest. The others will soon follow. To stimulate their young to fly, the adults have been feeding them less and spending more time away from the nest. They may also fly by with food in their talons to tempt the hesitant young to follow.

At first, the fledglings make only short flights from the nest.

Also keep in mind that the term "eagle," without any modifiers, is a very broad term. There are many different kinds of eagles. Who knows? Some particular species of eagles might actually do the whole dropping-the-eaglet thing. Perhaps parent eagles might push the eaglets out, but I found no mention on eagle sites about dropping-the-eaglet-while-flying.

I am not opposed to using colorful real-life metaphors to help illuminate sermon points. I am, however, slightly annoyed at embellishing the truth or using urban-legends-taken-at-face-value in sermons. A Christian should be truthful in all things, and should examine such widely used and accepted metaphors before using them in lessons. (or maybe I'm making too big of a deal out of nothing)

Have you heard this illustration before? Have you ever seen a documentary that showed this sort of behavior? If you have, please let me know.

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  • Thehotrod5

    Very interesting.....and nope, this is not one we have heard before. I have been a Christian for 12 years now and am blessed to say that we havent had a preacher yet that likes to embellish things.


  • Jackie

    I haven't heard the 'dropping them' part. The only thing I've heard (and heard a good number times) is that to make the baby/growing eagle/bird READY to fly, or to WANT to fly, the Mama bird will slowly start taking out all the stuffing/soft part of the nest that she had used to build it. The feathers, grass, etc. So eventually it's just sharp twigs/thorns, etc to sit on. So the baby bird is uncomfortable staying 'at home' and starts exploring. And to tell you the truth, I can't really remember the POINT of that...!

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    If I've heard that sermon illustration before, I have long forgotten it.

  • JunkMale

    Now that I think of it, the two of you (Angela and Headmistress) that have not heard this illustration happen to be coC people. What follows is just a theory: this illustration seems (to me) more likely to be used as an emotional point, and perhaps you have not heard it because coC sermons, in my experience, tend to emphasis logic and reason more than emotion. I could be totally wrong though.

    When I heard this illustration, it was in a church that was a coC spin-off, during a campus ministry retreat, which, in my observations, tend to be rife with emotional appeals.

    Jackie, I've read that version on the internet. I might be able to see the point that it's illustrating, but I don't think I fully agree with it. I think one of my wife's church pet peeves is when people start talking about "getting out of the comfort zone." Perhaps she can explain further.

  • Jackie

    What's COC? I'm Baptist, if that helps any. And, *cough cough* Dad's a Preacher, so I'm sure one of the places I heard it was there!

  • JunkMale


    COC = church of Christ.

  • a Jason

    There is a book from the late 1800's or early 1900's that talks about this practice of eaglets climbing on the mother's wing, and then being dropped in flight. It also talks about mother eagles taking out the padding of grass & feathers, etc. to make the nest less comfy and encourage the eaglets towards leaving the nest. The book it called God's Eagles, by George D. Watson. Its a rare book. I, too, am trying to find out whether this is merely legend or in fact is practiced in the wild.

    I think its important to note that the lengths that someone would have to have gone to, to verify this in the pre-Internet age, would have been tremendous.

    It sounds plausible to someone who doesn't know anything about eagles, so they would not have had reason to question it.

    And, it sounds like the jury is still out. We don't know for sure whether its true or not yet, even with vast array of info at our fingertips. There are a number of types of eagles scattered around the world, so this is a hard thing to track down, since there always exists the possibility that there is an eagle somewhere that practices this. Or, perhaps, its a different bird, and somewhere along the way someone got mixed up and the story became about eagles instead? Just a thought.