Europe and Central Asia
10 Feb 2016

How eagles went from worshipped ‘kings of the skies’ to victims of rat poison

Golden Eagles were once revered as mythical creatures. Today they are victims of pesticides. Photo: Bruno Berthemy
By Sanya Khetani-Shah

Say the word ‘eagle’ and the associations that come to mind are ‘soaring’, ‘majestic’, ‘eagle eye’ and ‘king of the skies’. ‘Eagle’ comes from the French aigle, which is derived from the Latin aquila (aquilus meaning ‘dark or blackish’, referring to the birds’ feathers or aquilo meaning ‘north wind’).

For centuries, eagles were respected for their strength and endurance as a predator. They were seen as a form or messenger of immortal Gods or royalty – from Zeus in Greek mythology to his Roman counterpart Jupiter, from Norse mythology to Celtic folklore, from Roman emperors to Catholic kings, and the Torah.

Europe and Central Asia – which together with Africa are the habitat for 46 of the 60 eagle species – have been fascinated by the birds for centuries (Albania, in its national language, is called Shqipëria or 'Land of the Eagles'). As an icon of courage, strength and immortality, the eagle became a symbol of military power and victory in Ancient Rome, appearing on banners, coins and other insignia. Various ancient rulers and empires – including Napoleon I, the Byzantine Empire, Charlemagne and Prussia – adopted an eagle on their heraldry.

But after the Industrial Revolution, hunting and rearing livestock for commerce rather than survival became more common. People feared these birds would kill domesticated animals or species reared specifically for hunting. The ammunition and industrial poison industries began to grow, making it easier for ordinary people to kill birds of prey. 

On paper, the eagle continues to be popular among nations because of the lasting impact of the Roman Empire and its successors, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. Five countries—Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico and Kazakhstan—have the Golden Eagle as their national bird. Currently, 28 countries have an eagle on their coat of arms, including 13 European and Central Asian ones.

But on the ground, a number of eagle species are of conservation concern. The illegal use of poison baits is among the most important direct threats in Europe to the Spanish Imperial Eagle, the Eastern Imperial Eagle and the Greater Spotted Eagle, as well as other birds of prey such as the Red Kite and the Egyptian Vulture.

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Many more eagles and other birds of prey such as vultures are killed accidentally when they ingest insecticides or rodenticides meant for pests, or eat the poisoned pests themselves. And of course, there are those who are purposely persecuted and illegally killed as predators that affect the population of species hunted as game.

There is clearly a discrepancy between how the eagle is portrayed in folklore and how it is perceived by people today. While good nature legislation and effective conservation efforts (often by BirdLife partners) in the EU have succeeded in bringing back populations of the Golden Eagle, the White-tailed Eagle and the Imperial Eagles – often from the brink of extinction – watching an eagle flying majestically against the blue sky is still no longer a common sight.  

That the 'king of the sky' should end its days in excruciating pain because of rat poison; that is a finale none could have ever wished for.


Read more about our work to stop wildlife poisoning.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.