This week, fake footage of a baby-snatching eagle created by mischievous Montreal art students went viral on YouTube, earning over five million hits. The students had created digital images of what appears to be a golden eagle attacking a toddler in a park: Picking the child up in its talons, appearing to struggle to lift the child, before dropping it and flying off. Many viewers believed the footage; many did not. But what most viewers might not realize is that they are participating in a belief about eagles that goes back to ancient, if not prehistoric, times.
Stories about eagles carrying off people, especially small children, go back centuries and are found all over the world. In fact, the student's digital prank is not the first film hoax of an eagle carrying off a baby; no less than Thomas Edison made an early film that depicted an eagle carrying off a baby, as did other early filmmakers. There are also drawings and paintings of eagles attacking children and scores of stories from all over the world with the same motif: It seems to be a falsehood we are compelled to return to. As experts were at pains to make clear this week, there is no known case of modern eagles trying to hunt people, even children. Even if they wanted to do so, it would be extremely difficult for an eagle to lift even a small person. Theoretically, they could lift an infant, but they would have to find that infant in an unprotected, open space where the bird would have room for a dive, grab and lift – and people are not prone to leaving their infants lying conveniently in open fields.
Still, myths about eagle attacks persist. In folklore, stories of eagles carrying off children are found all over the world, including in several first-nations sacred stories. In such stories, however, the children are not prey but privileged: They are taken to a spiritual world and invested with sacred powers. In folkloric traditions dating back to the ancient Greeks, eagles have been depicted kidnapping people: In the case of Ganymede, Zeus used this technique to obtain a desired lover. Nordic mythology, Mongolian and Persian traditions also have stories of giant birds, usually eagles, taking people.
Why do these stories persist? And why are they so pervasive? There are a few possible explanations: Eagles are intimidating birds and hunt relatively large prey, including young mammals like lambs or fawns. Baby-snatching stories may be simple imaginative leaps: Today a fawn, tomorrow a toddler. This sort of thinking might be even more resonant in places that have monkey-eating eagles, like Central and South America or the Philippines. These places are home to some of the largest eagles that really do eat our close genetic relatives. It is easy to identify with a "heroic little monkey," as Darwin pointed out, and to imagine ourselves in the claws of the raptor.
Others speculate that baby-snatching eagle stories may be ancestral memories of giant eagle species that went extinct hundreds of years ago; an example of this is the Haast's eagle of New Zealand, which overlapped with Maori who arrived to the islands in the 15th century and which, at 30-odd pounds, may have been known to attack people. Going back even further, there is evidence that large raptors did attack humanoid species before Homo sapiens: The Tuang child, a fossil of an early hominid, shows evidence of raptor claw marks in its skull. Finally, human bones have occasionally been found in eagle nests, but these bones were scavenged from corpses.
So there is a long history of humans imagining themselves as eagle prey that may be fed by a number of confused sources. Even if eagles posed a threat to humanity millennia ago, they are no threat now. Indeed, we are much more a threat to them through direct persecution, accidental poisoning, habitat loss and climate change. Even the terrifying Haast's eagle went extinct when the Maori hunted the great bird's primary prey, the ostrich-like moa, to extinction. Still, the Montreal students' prank demonstrates our deep primeval fear of – and fascination with – eagles, feelings that can easily be exploited by tricksters.
But, just in case, don't leave your baby alone in an open field.
Dr. Janine Rogers is an associate professor of English at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.