“Kate, what the hell d’you think you’re doing? Is that a dart gun!?”
“Your bloody menace is harassing my Stephanie.”
Josh wilted under Kate’s glare. “Will you relax? She’s an orphan eaglet, just like him. Give the kid a minute with her.”
“Why, so he can claw her eyes out?”
“He just wants to say ‘hi’. Trust me, we’d all know if he were spoiling for a fight.”
Kate grudgingly knew that was true: Archie was already much closer to Stephanie than usual, but his posture was deferential, his attitude more curious than aggressive. Josh squinted through binoculars. Whistled. “Smooth charmer, too. He’s got a present for her.”
Kate frowned, but sure enough Archie dropped a plump trout in front of the other juvenile’s tree. Stephanie eyed him cautiously, then flapped to earth and edged towards the newcomer’s offering. When she looked up warily, Archie shuffled another step away. He was still watching closely when she dug her claws into the fish, but as soon as she took her first bite he stretched his wings and flapped off.
Josh’s face was as smug as Kate’s was stunned. “Archie’s a classy gent, Kate.”
She snorted. “What kind of name is Archie for an eagle?”
Josh rolled his eyes. “It’s short for Archibald. As in Archie Buchanan? First World War fighter pilot. Who names their eagle Stephanie, anyway?”
“I think it’s pretty,” Kate muttered. Before her, Stephanie was digging into the trout with relish.
Archie was back the next day with another fish in his talons. By day four, Stephanie would leave her tree as soon as she saw him approach. They danced around each other at first, but Archie stayed longer every time. Eventually, Stephanie was so used to her frequent caller that she let him stand close by while she ate. Josh and Kate exchanged incredulous looks when Stephanie defied all kinds of eagle behavioural norms by pushing one of her visitor’s prizes back towards him, obviously willing to share. Even Archie looked unsure, but when he lowered his head to take a tentative bite, Stephanie piped cheerfully at him and returned to her meal with gusto.
Josh blinked. “You know you’re way too young to be this into her, right?”
Kate muttered darkly about men who spoke more kindly to birds than other people, but Josh decided he could take a lesson in chivalry. Even if it was being taught by a juvie bald eagle.
“At least he’s got taste — she’s a lovely bird.”
A long silence. Then Kate grinned. “Your aviator’s not too shabby either.”
It all changed on the crisp winter morning Archie appeared with something furry squirming in his talons.
“What the hell, ace? Steph doesn’t even like mice.”
“I think he wants to teach her to hunt.” Kate’s tone was curious.
Josh made a monumental effort not to scoff. “Don’t get your hopes up, okay? He’s a bald eagle, not a dolphin — they’re not really wired like that.”
But Kate was right. Archive landed with his usual grace, caught the waiting Stephanie’s eye and released his victim. Stephanie watched, confused. Archie snagged the mouse before it could escape, stared his companion down, then released his prey again. This time, Stephanie made a clumsy grab for it. Missed. Archie snatched up their snack, patiently released it again. Stephanie caught the pathetic creature on her third attempt, but didn’t seem to know what to do next. After some hesitation she offered it back, watching closely as Archie killed it with a single jab of his beak. He shuffled a few feet away, letting her edge closer to pick at it. When Josh glanced over, Kate was smiling warmly.
“Your Archie’s well ahead of the learning curve.”
“Oh please. Do you think I’d waste my time on anything less than the best?”
Archie’s little masterclass progressed well, Stephanie quickly learning to pursue their small prey as soon as it scurried towards her. In no time at all she’d catch Archie’s partially stunned victims on her second try, then her first. On the fifth day she finished off an unfortunate baby rabbit for herself, jabbing at it with her beak just like Archie had done. Kate threw her arms around Josh and whooped.
Before long they were soaring together, chasing and diving like a mated pair. They still ate together more often, and remained the only birds Josh had ever seen share their kills without squabbling.
“These kids are completely nuts,” he complained, watching Stephanie present a small salmon to Archie with what looked like bashful avian pride. “I’d write a paper on the childhood betrothal of bald eagles, but I don’t want all North America’s ornithologists thundering up here to gawk at them.”
Plenty of juveniles would construct twig nests long before they were mature enough to find real mates — playing house, researchers called it — but there was an unusual degree of gravitas to the way Steph and Archie went about it. When the lovebirds actually settled down in their junior eyrie-to-be, Josh just sighed.
“They can’t be thinking about — no! What am I saying? They literally can’t do that yet, they’re still juveniles. Ugh. Look at me talking like they’re gonna run away together if their parents don’t approve. Kate, the eagles are making me crazy.”
She squeezed his shoulder sympathetically. “It’s incredible. You sure you don’t wanna write your paper?”
“No way,” Josh grinned. “We’re not letting any nosy parkers cramp Archie’s style this year.”
The next time Kate yanked Josh bodily out of sleep, her eyes were red from crying. The storm howled above.
“We’ve lost her,” she sniffled. “There’s just…nothing.”
An unexpected late blizzard had devastated the area. He followed her out into the lab half-dressed. Some of their coworkers still awake; most looked away discreetly, trying to give them some privacy.
“…Maybe the storm’s just messing their beacons up?” an intern piped up hesitantly. Kate looked hopeful until Josh found Archie’s still-flickering light, frozen in place. He reached for the keys to his truck, but Kate’s hand closed over them.
“Don’t you dare.”
“We’ll lose them both. He’s not going to leave his girl.”
“If you go out and get yourself killed we’ll lose them both and you.” She shoved him backward sprawling into his chair. “You know I love him too.”
He nodded reluctantly as she hung up his keys.
For the next agonising two days they watched Archie’s heartbeat slow as the snow howled down. As soon as the tracks were declared passable Josh leapt to his feet, ready to fight Kate if he had to. Instead he found her waiting for him, field jacket already on and a bulging case of medical supplies in hand.
When they reached Archie’s flickering coordinates, they feared the worst. The eagles were a tattered mess of wings and bloody snow, Stephanie sprawled at impossible angles with her protector draped over her like a tragic Persian quilt.
“She hit the cables,” Kate whispered. Full-grown, their wingspan was a serious liability when they strayed fatally close to electrical wires. Josh flinched — a horrid way to go.
“And of course you stayed with her, you poor sap.”
He reached out gingerly to smoothe Archie’s icy head-feathers back, a last gracious dignity…and nearly jumped out of his skin when Stephanie lifted her head to snap feebly at him. He stared at Kate, beseeching. Kate peered closer, a slow dawning smile. The shock had fried Steph’s tag, but hadn’t take their brave girl out of the fight for good. Even better that her fearless defender had given everything to keep her still and warm against both injury and cruel wind.
With Archie still motionless and Stephanie’s wing broken in at least two places, they were more than justified in moving the birds. But Stephanie began keening unhappily as Kate slipped the travelling hood over her eyes. Her claws clenched unyielding over her mate’s, her undamaged wing beating miserably.
“Hey,” Josh crooned, wrapping his arms around her before she hurt herself. “Don’t freak out, honey. He’s still right here.”
“Still won’t budge an inch,” Kate murmured once the pair were safely in the truck. If Stephanie hadn’t been hooded there was no way they’d ever have been allowed close enough to swaddle the half-frozen male in warm towels and insulated blankets.
“Smart girl,” Josh nodded. “If I ever find a woman as keen on me, I’m going to cling onto her just like that.” Stephanie burbled in reply as Kate smiled, stroking her head.
“He’s quite something, isn’t he?”
“I told you months ago, Kate: our Archie’s got class.”
Thankfully, the centre’s on-site vet announced that Stephanie’s wing fractures were her worst injuries: even they were clean and easy to heal. Her mate had arrived “practically deep-frozen, honestly,” but all he really needed to recover was time, warmth and sympathy.
Josh grinned. “So what you’re saying is: we just give them food and shelter and then leave them to hang onto each other?”
The doctor nodded. Kate laughed. “That’s been our strategy for close to a year now.”
“You two are still completely nuts,” Josh groaned. “I should just write that damn paper. We could make a whole documentary about you and people would convince themselves it was all CGI. I’ve seen sock puppets behave more like proper regal eagles than you.”
Stephanie, having ripped apart Kate’s gift salmon, nudged a good portion of it towards her mate and loomed over him, almost menacing, until Archie nibbled at it.
“We oughta move you south to New York — I think the cold’s messing with your heads.”
“Says the man who regularly talks to bald eagles.” Kate joined him, watching Stephanie pick her way through her own share. From time to time, she peered over to make sure her mate was still resting quietly to one side.
Archie offered Stephanie a length of bright white twine as she finished her meal. She inspected it, clucked her approval, and laid it carefully with the twigs and other scraps they were gathering for their future nest.
“They really are odd,” Kate admitted fondly. Josh turned away, grinning.
“Josh! Josh, look!” A hand clutched his arm. He turned.
“I’m looking,” he assured her. “What am I looking — oh. Yeah, okay, now that’s flying.”
Archie had scrambled into flight, executing a playful spinning dive that had Stephanie chuffing reprovingly as she gave chase above the bare treetops.
It wasn’t just a courting ritual — it was the courting ritual. They soared into the clouds, Archie circling his mate as Stephanie called to him. They locked talons.
The pair careened wildly towards the earth below, entwined in glorious free fall. They broke apart close enough to shiver the treetops, both screaming with joy. Kate gasped with relief. Josh grinned through his tears.
“Good for you, ace.”
© 2019 | Tom Burton