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13 Public Facts About My Own Private Idaho

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Before Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester; before the ill-advised Psycho remake and the experimental Gerry; before the movies about Harvey Milk and Kurt Cobain, Portland-based indie auteur Gus Van Sant made My Own Private Idaho, an avant-garde drama starring River Phoenix as a narcoleptic gay hustler and Keanu Reeves as his friend and co-worker.

The film was part of a new wave of gay cinema, and it added to Phoenix's burgeoning reputation as a sensitive, brooding actor, made all the more tragic by his sudden death two years later. It changed Van Sant's life, too, putting him on the path that would lead to high-profile hits like Good Will Hunting. A quarter-century later, let's look back at the making of My Own Private Idaho and see what dreamy treasures await us.

1. IT'S A COMBINATION OF THREE STORIES, INCLUDING ONE BASED ON SHAKESPEARE.

Van Sant had three ideas rolling around his head that he smushed into one movie. One was a screenplay about street kids in Portland and was based on William Shakespeare's Henry IV. Much of the Keanu Reeves character's story comes from this part, complete with occasional Bard-like dialogue and the Falstaff-like character of Bob Pigeon. Another source (to which Van Sant had already given the title "My Own Private Idaho") was another screenplay about street hustlers, one older and one younger, who travel to Spain looking for one's mother. The third element was a short story Van Sant wrote called "In a Blue Funk," about the River Phoenix character being picked up by a German man and kept in a house.

2. GUS VAN SANT'S SCREENPLAY WAS ... PROBLEMATIC.

For one thing, it was only 70 pages long, which would translate to about a 70-minute movie. (He intended the actors to flesh it out with improvisation, which they did.) For another thing, he wrote it in a poetic, non-standard typographical format—words down the middle of the page, random capitalization, etc. That's those independent film guys for you. Always gotta be different.

3. VAN SANT LEARNED SECONDHAND THAT THE FILM WAS BEING MADE.

Any would-be filmmaker can tell you how nerve-racking it is to meet with potential producers and then wait to hear back about whether they're going to make your movie. Van Sant said he found out his producers had committed to making My Own Private Idaho when other filmmakers told him, "Congratulations, they're skipping our film to make yours.”

4. IT FEATURES A PERSON PRETENDING TO BE A STATUE.

Mike's vision of Scott cradling him at the foot of a monument called “The Coming of the White Man” takes some creative liberties. First of all, while Portland does have a monument by that name, the real one doesn't look like that. (It looks like this.)

The stag statue is somewhere else in Portland, and it's only the stag—the rider we see in the movie is not a statue, but a crew member in makeup!

5. ONE KEY SCENE WAS WRITTEN ALMOST ENTIRELY BY RIVER PHOENIX.

The way Van Sant wrote it, the scene where Mike and Scott sit around a campfire in the desert, where Mike confesses his love for Scott, was a three-page scene with no such declaration. Van Sant was leaving it ambiguous whether either of the hustlers was actually gay. But according to Van Sant, Phoenix really wanted to beef up the impact of the scene. "He had decided that that scene was his character's main scene and, with Keanu's permission, he wrote it out to say something that it wasn't already saying … It was his explanation of his character.” Now the film became, at least in part, about unrequited love, adding another tragic element to it.

6. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN VAN SANT'S SECOND MOVIE INSTEAD OF HIS THIRD, BUT IT WASN'T COMMERCIAL ENOUGH.

After getting some attention with his micro-budget debut, Mala Noche, Van Sant wanted to make My Own Private Idaho next. But everyone in Hollywood told him a story of gay hustlers was too "niche" to get any traction. So instead he made Drugstore Cowboy, about a roving band of junkies who rob pharmacies—a premise with more mainstream appeal, apparently.

7. MUCH OF THE CAST LIVED AT VAN SANT'S HOUSE DURING THE SHOOT.

Van Sant had just bought a house in Portland's west hills, and he invited Phoenix to stay there instead of a hotel. Reeves and others soon joined, and the place became an almost nonstop house party with jam sessions every night. (Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea was a cast member, after all; he and Reeves played bass while Phoenix played a guitar he picked up at a Portland music shop.) It got to be such a party, in fact, that Van Sant moved out of his own house and stayed in an apartment downtown.

8. UDO KIER'S CABARET ACT WAS INCORPORATED INTO THE FILM.

Hans, the odd German man with the intense blue eyes who cavorts with Mike and Scott, was played by Udo Kier, a veteran actor who had about 60 movie credits under his belt then and has added another 60 since. Early in his career, Kier had a cabaret act—an amusing contradiction to his filmography, which has consisted mostly of serious, sinister types. Fascinated by this side of Kier, Van Sant had him work part of his act into My Own Private Idaho, resulting in the odd moment with a lamp seen in the video above. (Van Sant said Kier originally used a blue flashlight; they changed it to a lamp to avoid comparison to Blue Velvet.) As a bonus, here’s Kier performing the same song on television in 1985.

9. THE FILM HAS SOME DOCUMENTARY ELEMENTS.

Those brief snippets where anonymous Portland street kids talk about their experiences aren't just meant to look like a documentary—they are a documentary. Van Sant knew some of the local street kids and had them on set as advisers and extras. During a lunch break one day, Van Sant turned the camera on these guys and interviewed them, hoping to inspire the cast with some authenticity. The result was so intriguing that he put some of that footage into the film.

10. THE REAL STREET HUSTLER MIKE IS BASED ON ALMOST PLAYED MIKE.

In the early stages of development, when Van Sant was still thinking as inexpensively as possible, he envisioned using non-actors to play the lead roles. That included Mike Parker, the real Portland street kid on whom Van Sant had based the Mike character. (Parker wasn't narcoleptic, though another friend of Van Sant's was.) When professional actors got involved, Parker was relegated to the ensemble (he plays a hustler named Digger), but he continued to help Phoenix research the role and understand the character.

11. PHOENIX THREW HIMSELF DANGEROUSLY INTO THE CHARACTER.

Not only did Phoenix interview real hustlers (videos are online), but according to friends, he experimented with hard drugs and even dabbled in same-sex shenanigans. He hung out with hustlers on the streets of Portland, learning the, uh, tricks of the trade. (Reeves also did similar research, though not as extensively.) He began to dress and groom himself like a grungy street kid, to the point where he was turned away from a nightclub because the bouncer thought he was a bum.

12. THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS BOB PIGEON WAS MANIPULATED INTO IT.

William Richert was a writer and director who'd made A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, in which Phoenix played the title character. For some reason, Phoenix became fixated on the idea of Richert playing Bob Pigeon in My Own Private Idaho, even though Richert was not an actor. Richert was offended by the suggestion, telling Phoenix, "It's a big fat pederast. Is this what you think of me? Is this what you think I should be playing?"

Phoenix kept trying to convince him, going so far as to bring Van Sant to Richert's house for a reading of the screenplay. Still he resisted. Finally, Phoenix called Richert from the set in Portland and said the actor who'd been hired to play Bob Pigeon had been let go. They had to shoot his scenes tomorrow. Could Richert fly up and take the part? Worn down, Richert finally relented.

13. THE TALKING MAGAZINE COVERS WERE SHOT IN A VERY LOW-TECH WAY.

To achieve the effect of magazine cover boys on the newsstand coming to life and talking to each other, Van Sant went old-school. He had the magazine covers mocked up on large panels of Plexiglass, then had the actors stand behind them. Each one was shot separately; in post-production, they were stitched together to make it look like a magazine rack.

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35 Movies Roger Ebert Really Hated
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When Roger Ebert hated a film, he didn't mince words. On what would have been the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's 76th birthday, here are some movies he absolutely loathed (including a couple of surprises) and his dry assessments of their value.

1. ARMAGEDDON (1998) // 1 STAR

“The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out. ... Armageddon reportedly used the services of nine writers. Why did it need any? The dialogue is either shouted one-liners or romantic drivel. ‘It’s gonna blow!’ is used so many times, I wonder if every single writer used it once, and then sat back from his word processor with a contented smile on his face, another day’s work done.”

2. THE BROWN BUNNY (2003) // 0 STARS

"I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny."

When the movie’s director responded by mocking Ebert’s weight, Ebert said, “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny."

3. JASON X (2001) // HALF STAR

"'This sucks on so many levels.' Dialogue from Jason X; rare for a movie to so frankly describe itself. Jason X sucks on the levels of storytelling, character development, suspense, special effects, originality, punctuation, neatness and aptness of thought."

4. MAD DOG TIME (1996) // 0 STARS

"Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time. Oh, I've seen bad movies before. But they usually made me care about how bad they were. Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you're not sure they have a bus line  ... Mad Dog Time should be cut into free ukulele picks for the poor."

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) // 1.5 STARS

"Once again, my comprehension began to slip, and finally I wrote down: 'To the degree that I do understand, I don't care.' It was, however, somewhat reassuring at the end of the movie to discover that I had, after all, understood everything I was intended to understand. It was just that there was less to understand than the movie at first suggests."

6. DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO (2005) // ZERO STARS

"[The title character] makes a living prostituting himself. How much he charges I'm not sure, but the price is worth it if it keeps him off the streets and out of another movie. Deuce Bigalow is aggressively bad, as if it wants to cause suffering to the audience. The best thing about it is that it runs for only 75 minutes ... Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

7. MR. MAGOO (1997) // HALF STAR

“Magoo drives a red Studebaker convertible in Mr. Magoo, a fact I report because I love Studebakers and his was the only thing I liked in the film. Mr. Magoo is transcendently bad. It soars above ordinary badness as the eagle outreaches the fly.”

8. SPICE WORLD (1997) // HALF STAR

"Spice World is obviously intended as a ripoff of A Hard Day's Night which gave The Beatles to the movies ... the huge difference, of course, is that the Beatles were talented—while, let's face it, the Spice Girls could be duplicated by any five women under the age of 30 standing in line at Dunkin' Donuts."

9. GOOD LUCK CHUCK (2007) // 1 STAR

"There is a word for this movie, and that word is: Ick."

10. FREDDY GOT FINGERED (2001)// 0 STARS

"This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels."

11. CORKY ROMANO (2001) // HALF STAR

Corky Romano is like a dead zone of comedy. The concept is exhausted, the ideas are tired, the physical gags are routine, the story is labored, the actors look like they can barely contain their doubts about the project.”

12. CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2000) // HALF STAR

Charlie’s Angels is like the trailer for a video game movie, lacking only the video game, and the movie.”

13. MANNEQUIN (1987) // HALF STAR

“A lot of bad movies are fairly throbbing with life. Mannequin is dead. The wake lasts 1 1/2 hours, and then we can leave the theater. Halfway through, I was ready for someone to lead us in reciting the rosary.”

14. EXIT TO EDEN (1994) // HALF STAR

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t get Rosie O’Donnell. I’ve seen her in three or four movies now, and she generally had the same effect on me as fingernails on a blackboard. She’s harsh and abrupt and staccato and doesn’t seem to be having any fun. She looks mean. ...  What were your first thoughts the first time Rosie turned up in the leather dominatrix uniform? Did you maybe have slight misgivings that you were presiding over one of the more misguided film projects of recent years?”

15. HOCUS POCUS (1993) // 1 STAR

“Of the film’s many problems, the greatest may be that all three witches are thoroughly unpleasant. They don’t have personalities; they have behavior patterns and decibel levels. A good movie inspires the audience to subconsciously ask, ‘Give me more!’ The witches in this one inspired my silent cry, ‘Get me out of here!’”

(What can we say? Ebert was occasionally wrong.)

16. TOMMY BOY (1995) // 1 STAR

“No one is funny in Tommy Boy. There are no memorable lines. None of the characters is interesting, except for the enigmatic figure played by Rob Lowe, who seems to have wandered over from Hamlet. Judging by the evidence on the screen, the movie got a green light before a usable screenplay had been prepared, with everybody reassuring themselves that since they were such funny people, inspiration would overcome them.”

17. THE VILLAGE (2004) // 1 STAR

“Eventually the secret of Those, etc., is revealed. It’s a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It’s so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don’t know the secret anymore. And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we’re back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.”

18. THE LOVE GURU (2008) // 1 STAR

“Myers has some funny moments, but this film could have been written on toilet walls by callow adolescents. Every reference to a human sex organ or process of defecation is not automatically funny simply because it is naughty, but Myers seems to labor under that delusion. He acts as if he’s getting away with something, but in fact all he’s getting away with is selling tickets to a dreary experience.”

19. SHE'S OUT OF CONTROL (1989) // 0 STARS

“What planet did the makers of this film come from? What assumptions do they have about the purpose and quality of life? I ask because She’s Out of Control is simultaneously so bizarre and so banal that it’s a first: the first movie fabricated entirely from sitcom cliches and plastic lifestyles, without reference to any known plane of reality.”

20. SUMMER SCHOOL (1987) // HALF STAR

“You see it, you leave the theater, and then it evaporates, leaving just a slight residue, something like a vaguely unpleasant taste in the memory.”

21. CLIFFORD (1994) // HALF STAR

“It’s not bad in any usual way. It’s bad in a new way all its own. There is something extraterrestrial about it, as if it’s based on the sense of humor of an alien race with a completely different relationship to the physical universe. The movie is so odd, it’s most worth seeing just because we’ll never see anything like it again. I hope.”

22. NORTH (1994) // 0 STARS

"I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."

Alan Zweibel wrote this film, and he got a chance to confront Ebert about the review. In a bathroom.

23. 200 CIGARETTES (1999)// HALF STAR

"Maybe another 200 cigarettes would have helped; coughing would be better than some of this dialogue."

24. DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002) // HALF STAR

"In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant."

25. SAVING SILVERMAN (2001) // HALF STAR

"Saving Silverman is so bad in so many different ways that perhaps you should see it, as an example of the lowest slopes of the bell-shaped curve."

He included a critique of Neil Diamond, who makes a guest appearance in the movie: "As for Neil Diamond, Saving Silverman is his first appearance in a fiction film since The Jazz Singer (1980), and one can only marvel that he waited 20 years to appear in a second film, and found one even worse than his first one."

26. THE JAZZ SINGER (1980) // 1 STAR

From rogerebert.com:

"Diamond's whole presence in this movie is offensively narcissistic. His songs are melodramatic, interchangeable, self-aggrandizing groans and anguished shouts, backed protectively by expensive and cloying instrumentation. His dramatic presence also looks over-protected, as if nobody was willing to risk offending him by asking him to seem involved, caring and engaged.

"Diamond plays the whole movie looking at people's third shirt buttons, as if he can't be bothered to meet their eyes and relate with them. It's strange about the Diamond performance: It's not just that he can't act. It's that he sends out creepy vibes. He seems self-absorbed, closed off, grandiose, out of touch with his immediate surroundings."

27. ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994) // 1 STAR

"Most of the people look as if they would rather be in other movies. The movie basically has one joke, which is Ace Ventura's weird nerdy strangeness. If you laugh at this joke, chances are you laugh at Jerry Lewis, too, and I can sympathize with you even if I can't understand you. I found the movie a long, unfunny slog through an impenetrable plot. Kids might like it. Real little kids."

28. STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT (1992) // HALF STAR

"Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! is one of those movies so dimwitted, so utterly lacking in even the smallest morsel of redeeming value, that you stare at the screen in stunned disbelief. It is moronic beyond comprehension, an exercise in desperation during which even Sylvester Stallone, a repository of self-confidence, seems to be disheartened."

29. THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (2005) // 1 STAR

"Of course you don't have to be smart to get into The Dukes of Hazzard. But people like Willie Nelson and Burt Reynolds should have been smart enough to stay out of it. Here is a lame-brained, outdated wheeze about a couple of good ol' boys who roar around the back roads of the South in the General Lee, their beloved 1969 Dodge Charger. As it happens, I also drove a 1969 Dodge Charger. You could have told them apart because mine did not have a Confederate flag painted on the roof."

30. GODZILLA (1998) // 1.5 STARS

"Going to see Godzilla at the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter's Basilica. It's a rebuke to the faith that the building represents. Cannes touchingly adheres to a belief that film can be intelligent, moving and grand. Godzilla is a big, ugly, ungainly device to give teenagers the impression they are seeing a movie."

31. THE BUCKET LIST (2007) // 1 STAR

"The Bucket List is a movie about two old codgers who are nothing like people, both suffering from cancer that is nothing like cancer, and setting off on adventures that are nothing like possible. I urgently advise hospitals: Do not make the DVD available to your patients; there may be an outbreak of bedpans thrown at TV screens."

32. DIRTY LOVE (2005) // 0 STAR

"I would like to say more, but—no, I wouldn't. I would not like to say more. I would like to say less. On the basis of Dirty Love, I am not certain that anyone involved has ever seen a movie, or knows what one is."

33. BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000) // HALF STAR

"This movie is awful in so many different ways. Even the opening titles are cheesy. Sci-fi epics usually begin with a stab at impressive titles, but this one just displays green letters on the screen in a type font that came with my Macintosh. Then the movie's subtitle unscrolls from left to right in the kind of 'effect' you see in home movies."

34. THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS (2000) // HALF STAR

"This is an ideal first movie for infants, who can enjoy the bright colors on the screen and wave their tiny hands to the music."

35. PINK FLAMINGOS (1972) // 0 STARS

"John Waters' Pink Flamingos has been restored for its 25th anniversary revival, and with any luck at all that means I won't have to see it again for another 25 years. If I haven't retired by then, I will. ... Note: I am not giving a star rating to Pink Flamingos because stars simply seem not to apply. It should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object."

Reviews via RogerEbert.com.

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14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
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Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
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So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
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It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: an eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
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Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch it themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE.

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
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Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: the male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
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Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weight about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
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People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
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Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
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You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
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It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the Earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
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What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
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If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
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There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

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