11 Twisted Facts About ‘The Far Side’

For 15 years, "The Far Side" added a dash of irreverence to the funny pages. Offbeat, macabre, and sometimes controversial, Gary Larson’s trailblazing cartoon was a gigantic success that ran in nearly 2000 newspapers at the height of its popularity. It also gave an entire generation of humorists a renewed appreciation for cow jokes.

Here are 11 things you should know about this highly-evolved comic strip.

1. IT EVOLVED FROM AN EARLIER STRIP CALLED NATURE’S WAY.

A native of Tacoma, Washington, Gary Larson was born on August 14, 1950. At a very young age, he developed the passion for wildlife that would give "The Far Side" its unique flavor. In his early years, Larson spent countless hours chasing amphibians and nurturing pet snakes. So when he enrolled at Washington State University, his decision to major in biology surprised no one. But halfway through college, Larson’s focus shifted. “I didn’t want to go to school for more than four years, and I didn’t know what you did with a bachelor’s degree in biology, so I switched over and got my degree in communications,” he told The New York Times. “It was one of the most idiotic things I ever did.” Had he pursued a scientific career, Larson says that he’d want to become an entomologist.

After graduating, he landed a job at a record store. Dissatisfied with the gig, Larson began to draw bizarre, single-panel cartoons in his spare time. One day in 1976, he presented six of these to the editor of the popular Seattle magazine Pacific Search. The half-dozen comics were swiftly bought up (for $3 apiece) and published under the title "Nature’s Way." Following his print debut, Larson took a three-year hiatus from cartooning. Then, in 1979, The Seattle Times agreed to revive "Nature’s Way" as a weekly comic strip. Riding high on newfound success, Larson decided to see if any other publications might be interested in his work. The quest began—and ended—with a visit to the San Francisco Chronicle’s headquarters. Editor Stan Arnold took an immediate liking to Larson’s comic strip and successfully got it syndicated nationwide.

Early on in the process, Larson was asked if he’d mind changing the title from "Nature’s Way" to "The Far Side." Mildly put, this wasn’t a problem; Larson once joked that for all he cared, “They could have called it ‘Revenge of the Zucchini People.’” "The Far Side" that we all know and love made its grand debut in newspapers across America in January, 1980.

2. FROM THE GET-GO, GARY LARSON DIDN’T WANT "THE FAR SIDE" TO INCLUDE RECURRING CHARACTERS.

Chronicle Features syndicated "The Far Side" and asked Larson to embrace at least one aspect of the standard comic strip formula before it was distributed nationally. “They… wanted me to develop characters like Charlie Brown or something [who] would always come back,” the cartoonist said in a 1998 NPR interview. At the time, he explains, it was widely believed that every strip needed a cast in order to be successful. Larson felt otherwise.

“I instinctively thought of that as very limiting,” Larson explained. “And I also just didn’t see humor as something that had to be confined to one particular character. To me, what was exciting was trying to do something that would crack someone up. And I didn’t see how characters or a particular character enhanced that. In fact, I think it would work against it in some cases. A certain face on a character would work in one instance but not in another. Although admittedly, as the years went by, all my stuff got boiled down to about six faces.”

3. AN ODD CHILDREN’S BOOK WAS ONE OF LARSON’S BIGGEST INSPIRATIONS.

You need a fairly warped imagination to come up with things like teenage dragons lighting their sneezes. "The Far Side" brand of comedy took some of its cues from Larson’s family and what he has described as their “morbid sense of humor.” Older brother Dan Larson left a particularly big impact on his developing mind: When the two weren’t out collecting tadpoles or salamanders together, Dan would pull all sorts of pranks on his younger sibling. “[He’d] scare the hell out of me,” the cartoonist said.

Another influence was the picture book Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat by Morrell Gipson. True to its title, the story is about a large bear who goes around sitting on other animals' houses. In 1986, the TV program 20/20 ran a feature on Larson. Halfway through the interview, he was visibly delighted when Lynn Sherr surprised him with a copy of the then-out-of-print book. “There was something so mesmerizing about the image of this big bear going through the forest and squashing the homes of these little animals,” Larson said. “I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”

4. ONE EARLY STRIP CONFUSED SO MANY READERS THAT LARSON HAD TO EXPLAIN ITS MEANING IN A PRESS RELEASE. 

With "The Far Side," Larson turned bovine jokes into a real cash cow. From gags about vacationing cattle to the exploits of a bloodthirsty vampcow, the strip was loaded with heifer hilarity. “I’ve always thought the word cow was funny,” Larson said. “And cows are sort of tragic figures. Cows blur the line between tragedy and humor.”

Every so often, though, this affinity for the hoofed mammals got him into trouble. In 1982, Larson drew a cartoon that was supposed to satirize the outdated anthropological belief that, of all creatures, only Homo sapiens makes tools. The strip in question shows a cow presenting an assortment of low-tech gadgets she’s built. Larson’s caption reads, simply, “Cow Tools.” Some people didn’t get the joke. In fact, hardly anyone did. Chronicle Features was bombarded with letters and phone calls from confused readers begging for an explanation. Within 24 hours of the strip's publication, Larson was asked to write a press release explaining its significance to the masses.

That October, his official statement appeared in newspapers throughout the U.S. “The cartoon was meant to be an exercise in silliness,” it claims. Larson goes on to say “I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average ‘Far Side’ reader.” Embarrassing as this incident was, Larson got the last laugh. On more than one occasion, he’s credited the "Cow Tools" debacle with boosting the popularity of "The Far Side."

5. "THE FAR SIDE" GAVE BIRTH TO A WIDELY-USED PALEONTOLOGY TERM.

Stegosaurus is world-famous for its lime-sized brain and the quartet of nasty-looking spikes on its tail. A 1982 "Far Side" strip decided to have a little fun with the latter attribute. In that cartoon, we find an early human anachronistically lecturing his fellow cavemen about dinosaur-related hazards. Pointing at the rear end of a Stegosaurus diagram, he says “Now this end is called the thagomizer … after the late Thag Simmons.” Without meaning to, Larson’s strip plugged a gap in the scientific lexicon. Previously, nobody had ever given a name to the unique arrangement of tail spikes found on Stegosaurus and its relatives. But today, many paleontologists use the word “thagomizer” when describing this apparatus, even in scientific journals.

6. FANS OF THE STRIP HAVE NAMED THREE DIFFERENT INSECTS AFTER GARY LARSON.

In 1989, entomologist Dale Clayton discovered a brand new species of biting louse that exclusively targets owls. When the time came to name it, his first choice was Strigiphilus garylarsoni. Clayton wrote the cartoonist to ask for his blessing. This proposed insect name, he explained, was the scientist’s way of recognizing the “enormous contribution that my colleagues and I feel you have made to biology through your cartoons.” Larson happily gave Clayton the green light. “I considered this an extreme honor,” the "Far Side" creator said in retrospect. “Besides, I knew that nobody was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me.”

Indeed, scientific nomenclature has yet to give us a “Larson’s swan.” However, in addition to Strigiphilus garylarsoni, there’s now a beetle called Garylarsonus and a butterfly known as Serratoterga larsoni.

7. ONE COMIC TOOK SOME HEAT FROM THE JANE GOODALL INSTITUTE.  

“Well, well—another blonde hair … Conducting a little more ‘research’ with that Jane Goodall tramp?” A sassy chimpanzee makes this remark while grooming her mate in a 1987 "Far Side" comic. The one-liner started a controversy that erupted and then vanished in record time. Shortly after the cartoon ran, Larson’s syndicate received an angry letter from the Jane Goodall Institute’s executive director. Its author minced no words. “To refer to Dr. Goodall as a tramp is inexcusable—even by a self-described ‘loony’ such as Larson,” read the dispatch.

“I was horrified,” Larson wrote in The Prehistory of The Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Collection. “Not so much from a fear of being sued … but because of my deep respect for Jane Goodall and her well-known contributions to primatology. The last thing in the world I would have intentionally done was offend Dr. Goodall in any way.”

But in a stunning turn of events, it turns out that Goodall herself loved the comic. “I thought it was very funny. And I think if you make a Gary Larson cartoon, boy you’ve made it,” she said. The chimpanzee expert claimed that she was away in Africa when the director lashed out at Larson’s syndicate without her knowledge. Later, the “offending” cartoon appeared on special T-shirts that generated cash for the Institute. Also, Larson got the chance to visit one of Goodall’s research facilities in 1988. Here, he met a chimp named Frodo—who apparently wasn’t a "Far Side" fan. Without warning, Frodo pounced on an unsuspecting Larson, leaving the artist with a patchwork of scrapes and bruises.  

8. AN OHIO NEWSPAPER SWITCHED THE CAPTIONS FROM "DENNIS THE MENACE" AND "THE FAR SIDE"—TWICE.

The Dayton Daily News committed an unforgettable funny page blunder in August, 1981. Back then, the paper would run "The Far Side" right next to the more traditional "Dennis the Menace." On that fateful August day, their captions were switched. "The Far Side" strip now showed a young snake who kvetches at the family dinner table by saying “Lucky I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we woulda starved to death by now.” Elsewhere, Dennis Mitchell—who’s munching on a sandwich of his own—groans “Oh brother … Not hamsters again!”

“What’s most embarrassing about this is how immensely improved both cartoons turned out to be,” Larson opined in The Prehistory of The Far Side. Somebody at the Dayton Daily News made the same mistake two years later. This time, readers were confronted with a psychic cavewoman asking “If I get as big as Dad, won’t my skin be too TIGHT?” Dennis Mitchell, meanwhile, casually looked his mother in the eye and said “I see your little, petrified skull … labeled and resting on a shelf somewhere.”

9. TWO ANIMATED "FAR SIDE" SHORTS EXIST.

CBS aired a 20-minute program called Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side in 1994. Conceived as a Halloween special, the film was essentially an animated reinterpretation of several classic "Far Side" cartoons. Marv Newland—an animator whose best-known work is the Larson-esque short film Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)—directed Tales, which won a Grand Prix award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The year 1997 brought with it a sequel, Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side II. By then, the comic strip which inspired both movies had been laid to rest, as Larson retired in 1995. He has said that the two animated projects presented an interesting challenge because he “didn’t want any dialogue” in the finished products.

10. A "FAR SIDE" MUSEUM EXHIBIT OPENED IN 1985.

Natural History Magazine once called Gary Larson “the unofficial cartoonist laureate of the scientific community.” For physicists, biologists, and naturalists around the world, his work is the subject of near-universal admiration. By the mid-1980s, numerous hallways in the San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences had basically been wallpapered with "Far Side" cartoons. Inspired by this décor, the facility got the bright idea to set up a special exhibit in Larson’s honor. Dubbed "The Far Side of Science," it featured some 600 individual cartoons. The display first opened at the CAS in December, 1985 then traveled through such cities as Los Angeles, Denver, and Orlando—often breaking attendance records along the way.

11. LARSON HAS LIKENED HIS OTHER BIG PASSION—MUSIC—TO CARTOONING.

A lifelong jazz fan, Larson would frequently listen to the work of genre maestros when he needed to generate ideas for "Far Side" comics. He ranks legendary guitarist Herb Ellis among his favorite musicians. In 1989, Ellis asked Larson if he’d design the cover of his next album, which was to be named “Doggin’ Around.” The humorist took the job—in exchange for a guitar lesson. Nowadays, with "The Far Side" (mostly) in his rear view mirror, Larson dedicates a portion of each day to honing his skills as a jazz guitarist.

This new pursuit, he says, isn’t all that different from drawing comics. “It has some parallels to cartooning because it’s improvisational—you never know exactly how something is going to turn out,” Larson told the Associated Press. “Taking a solo on a tune is always a little bit scary. Yet it has structure, there are certain rules to follow, and you try to create something with those rules.”

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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
iStock

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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