Conversations With An Eagle: The Story of a Remarkable Relationship

by Brenda Cox

Published by Greystone Books

261 pages, 2002

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Bird's Eye View

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


In this vivid passage from her memoir Conversations With an Eagle, writer and naturalist Brenda Cox tells us about her first encounter with Ichabod, a female bald eagle who will become a sort of soul companion for the next eight years of Cox' life:

"I crouched there, very still, looking into eyes that could see a fish from a mile in the sky. I felt a frisson run through me. ... For a moment, I had caught my reflection in her potent bronze eyes.

I was hooked."

The 25-year-old Cox is volunteering at a rehabilitation center for injured birds of prey called O.W.L. (Orphaned Wild Life) in Delta, British Columbia when she first stares into Ichabod's enclosure and loses herself in those fiercely beautiful eagle eyes. She knows she is not supposed to become emotionally attached to any of the birds in her care for fear of "imprinting" them, creating a connection with humans that can be a disaster for wild creatures: "The key to a bird's ability to qualify for release back into the wild is that it not associate people with food," Cox explains. "Because the birds lack a fear response to people, they react to humans as competitors for food and territory."

In other words, imprinting does not lead to affection for humans so much as increased aggression. Cox knows all this, but in the case of Ichabod she loses all her objectivity. Against her better judgment she falls into a mesmerizing connection with a majestic but cold-blooded creature who thinks nothing of swooping down on her head and casually attacking her scalp to draw blood.

This is not a warm, fuzzy story with sentimental master-and-dog overtones, but a poignant, lucidly written account of a relationship written by a loner who feels more than a little lost in the world. The attraction to Ichabod is magnetic, intense, even obsessive. The injured young eagle is already too imprinted to be safely released, and because it serves no useful purpose at the sanctuary, authorities assume it will have to be destroyed.

But Cox has other ideas. Certain other salvaged birds are being used for educational purposes at the center, trained to fly to a falconer's commands. But there are problems here: "Bald eagles were not seen as traditional falconry birds. There were several examples of bird trainers in the U. S. being badly injured by 'balds,' and bald eagles were considered less stable in temperament than goldens due to their aggressive, squabbling nature in the wild."

But Cox is a woman of rare single-mindedness who is determined to overturn these apprehensions. Her laborious attempts to turn an eagle into a falcon form the core of the memoir, but it is in her detailed backstory that we really get to know Cox as a human being.

Cox was one of those solitary, sensitive, horsy little girls who always felt more at home in nature than with her fellow humans. Her nickname in school was "bush girl." Out riding in the wild, she lost her social timidity: "I felt like a centaur, a blend of horse and girl."

She helps her friend Renata look after injured raptors in her back yard, and feels the stirrings of a passion for wild things that will eventually become permanent. Holding a snowy owl, her response is powerful and strangely sensual:

So I stood quietly, eyeing the thick body with its Persian cat fluff, the nerve endings of my bare wrist awakened to the soft, shirred fringe of feathers resting gently there.

She works at odd jobs after high school, restless, a bit of a misfit. Eventually she attends Simon Fraser University and finds she has a flair for research in biology. But cloning aphids in a lab leaves her a bit cold: "I always wanted to understand how the creatures felt."

It is only during her weekends volunteering at O.W.L. that Cox truly feels alive. This is so important to her that a relationship with a boyfriend breaks up over it. She even dreams of birds, and often wakes up crying. Her experiences with wildlife are transcendent and draw poetry from her, as in this wondrous description of releasing a barn owl:

Huge heather wings folded and rose before my face, but no more than a faint hush, hush reached my ears. Light gilded the bird's wings, warming them almost to cinnamon. ... He turned his head once in that eerie, seamless way owls have, and I caught a glimpse of his huge sulphur-coloured eyes before he swung around and flew straight towards the sun...

The close connection Cox forms with Ichabod does not really get underway until nearly a third into the book. But from then on it is a prose-poem of eagle and human interacting in a way that verges on the mystical. The bird has a definite personality, and it is far from cuddly: "There was no inherent submission in Ichabod's gaze, no desire to please. Hers was the single-mindedness of a predator."

Cox is so bonded with Ichabod that she even recognizes her smell: "It was the essence of eagle, the scent of all raptors: the faint, copper-sweet smell of old blood. It always put me in mind of the descriptions I'd read of vampires' breath."

The training sessions are described in a rather laborious blow-by-blow manner which is the only real drawback in an otherwise gracefully written book. Because it's a memoir and not a novel, the story has no natural peak but is all process, with something of an anticlimactic ending. The book brings, however, enough goose-bump moments to make it well worth reading:

Nothing in the world prepares you for an eagle leaping to your arm.

Ichabod's head cocked sideways, her eyes sharpened, then she half leapt, half flew to my outstretched arm. She curled her talons around the heavy leather glove and lowered her beak to worry the thumb. My arm and hand belonged to her. That was what she did best: own things. For eight years, this eagle owned me.

It's a curious, obsessive connection, vividly recounted, making for an absorbing, touching, and sometimes even enthralling read. | August 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.