THE GREAT IRONY OF MK’S death is that the eagle herself was rodenticidal. As in, a killer of rodents, at least when the fishing was bad. Yet it was also rat poison that rendered her stumbling and sick, unable to get off the ground by the time rescuers came.
The humans surrounded her, dodging talons and the great weapon of her beak, until they could wrap her in their arms and carry her to care. When the eagle began to bleed internally, they intubated her, pushed on her feathered chest. But nothing could bring her back.
That March, we mourned her. The day after her death was announced, several dozen people gathered at sunset and processed down the sidewalk in Arlington, Massachusetts. Families, couples, people on their own amassed in a vigil in front of Town Hall. Some spoke to each other in quiet huddles. Others stood on the curb and held up anti-rodenticide signs to honking cars that passed. Headlights lit up tears on faces.
Many carried posters or framed photographs of MK they’d taken themselves. These were remembrances of the raptor, but also a kind of proof of kinship—a way to say, I was close to this bird. I knew her. One man simply carried his phone with the lit screen facing outward. It displayed a photo of MK in flight, her body poised in a Y shape, as if preparing to strike with her feet.
All evening, he held up the glowing phone at the level of his heart.
* * *
I was at the vigil because I, too, knew MK, by which I mean I was always looking for her.
The first time I saw her was a year earlier, on a cloudy spring afternoon when I found myself with just enough time for a run before I’d have to pick up my kids. Passing the Boys and Girls Club about a mile from our home, I heard excited shrieks from a gaggle of kids playing on the basketball court out front. A huge brown bird with a white head swooped low over the building.
Although I had never in my life seen one in the wild, there was no mistaking it. I stopped in my tracks and uttered something that was definitely not kid-appropriate. I called in the direction of a young guy supervising the kids. “Was that an eagle?”
“Yep, bald eagle!” he called back brightly, unsurprised.
Meanwhile, the bird continued carving its circle through the air and was now receding over the large pond behind the building. I hurried through a parking lot and watched it shrink to a punctuation mark in the sky.
Running home, I felt powerful. I carried the visitation inside my body like an electrical charge.
* * *
For generations, Americans were unlikely to catch a glimpse of our national bird. Bald eagle habitat disappeared or farmers who feared the raptors would harm their animals shot them. Perhaps worst of all, the pervasive pesticide DDT contaminated the birds’ prey and thinned their eggshells to breaking. These forces combined to nearly eradicate bald eagles by the 1960s, until the United States government finally listed the species as endangered in 1967.
In the next decade, DDT was banned, and with the help of conservation efforts, bald eagles gradually returned to the American landscape. In 2007, they were triumphantly removed from the endangered species list. But their recovery in Massachusetts remained slow. Laura Kiesel, who trained academically as a wildlife biologist before founding the group Save Arlington Wildlife, estimates that when MK and her mate, KZ, took up residence in Arlington, Massachusetts, they were the town’s first nesting bald eagle pair in at least fifty years. Or longer—town residents of all ages don’t remember seeing bald eagles here in their lifetime.
The minute Kiesel first glimpsed MK in early spring of 2021, she was hooked. She visited the eagles’ nesting site throughout that spring, and watched from a distance as the pair reared two fluffy chicks.
But then one of the chicks, C25, died of rodenticide poisoning, and within the year, its sibling was struck and killed by a car. “I admit it kind of traumatized me,” Kiesel says. The following year, she was reluctant to visit the eagles’ nesting site, afraid something bad would befall these chicks, too.
She didn’t want to look closely. She thought perhaps she would rather not know them at all.
A courting male and female may lock talons in the air, then execute a plunging tandem cartwheel to the earth. More experienced birders could tell apart MK and her mate. Females are larger than males, for one thing, but MK also had a banded leg visible with a zoom lens. She was probably who I most often saw around town, because—as I later learned—she grew up in close proximity to humans and was bold, unbothered by traffic or gawking witnesses.
But all I really knew during those seasons I watched was that eagles were around. And that I could transcend my everyday human existence if I only remembered to leave my two-dimensional plane of attention and look up.
* * *
Once, on another run in May, I topped a crest just as an eagle flew low over the valley next to me. Passing in opposite directions, we—for a moment—were nearly parallel. The bird’s size and power were astonishing. Its face, all sharp eyes and sharp beak, bore down on me, as if I were a fish about to feel the clench of talons in my back. I fumbled for my phone and managed to capture a picture just as it passed.
The photo was blurred, the eagle backlit and flattened. My meager camera hadn’t seen what I did. It hadn’t met a god.
* * *
A neighbor told me where to find the eagles’ aerie in a nearby cemetery, and when my younger sister, a bird enthusiast, visited over Memorial Day weekend, we went searching.
Between gravestones, we looked for the right tree. I elbowed my sister and pointed toward a bald eagle casually swooping across the open lawn. We followed it and stood at a distance from where it perched. The bird ignored us, staring into the distance.
Was it looking for prey? Waiting for its mate? The eagle was inscrutable. Finally, it shuffled its feet on the branch, turned around, bowed deeply so its tail was above its head, and launched a regal volume of excrement arcing through the air.
We burst out laughing. All our attention was on this animal and the family it was keeping hidden. But to the eagle, we were probably no more than wallpaper in its bathroom.
We resumed our search for the nest. One pine tree matched my neighbor’s description, but seemed uninhabited. We circled it, craning our necks—and there it was. The enormous platform near the top of the tree seemed too big to miss, yet from most angles it eluded our gaze, blending seamlessly into branches. We stared up, hoping to glimpse a chick. There was a little bit of hopeful movement, but nothing else. Eventually a groundskeeper drove by and told us to get off the grass.
We had known her as much as one can know a wild animal. We had grown fond of her presence, her visitations, and now we would miss her.
I learned about MK’s illness and death, and eventual vigil, on Facebook—the same place I often find major news about acquaintances.
When I arrived at Town Hall, a procession of mourners was approaching. They were somber, each grieving a private relationship with the eagle. We had known her as much as one can know a wild animal. We had grown fond of her presence, her visitations, and now we would miss her.
Darkness fell. Kiesel stood on the steps in front of rolling television cameras, a microphone in her hand, and described how she was lobbying for legislation that would let Arlington ban rodenticides on private as well as public property. She told us how the rodent-killing chemicals called second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs), which had likely killed MK and her chick, had also claimed a family of great horned owls in an Arlington park last summer, and probably other raptors we’ll never know about.
When Kiesel asked for a moment of silence, a man on the steps shouted, “MK, soar high forever!” and raised his fist to the gibbous moon.
Humans had loved her, but we had also killed her.
* * *
In the weeks and months following the vigil, Laura Kiesel turned MK into a symbol, an argument for action and change. The birds, of course, knew nothing of our narratives as they carried on with their own lives.
As much as local birders had photographed and celebrated the bond between MK and her mate, the male eagle was spotted with a new girlfriend within hours of MK’s capture from the cemetery—even before her heart had stopped. Soon after MK’s death, the new couple was nesting together.
After a hasty courtship, it became clear that the pair was incubating an egg or two. They took turns warming their brood. Maybe the story of MK’s death would have a bittersweet ending, after all: the hatching of a new generation of Arlington eagles.
Weeks went by, though, and no eaglets appeared. The nest had failed. Perhaps they hadn’t enough time to learn each other’s habits, to prepare their bodies and their bond for parenthood.
The future of the eagles is unwritten, but it depends on the birds themselves as much as it does on us. Even when we think we know them well enough to tell their stories, they remain largely unknowable.