Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, January 21, 2019

Letter from Listener: Turtles Falling from the Skies

Last week I received an email from a reader of this blog (which serves as a transcript of “For the Birds”) about an account Steve Lorentz sent. Steve had watched a crow dropping some sort of item from the sky and retrieving it, apparently playing a game of catch with itself. I added my own stories about a crow I’d rehabbed playing ball with my little boy, and about gulls, which are known to drop various shellfish from the sky to break them so they can eat the meat within. In response to this, Chelsea Baylor wrote:
Several years ago, I was walking the path by the Skokie Lagoons (in Skokie, IL) when I saw ahead of me two young men in earnest discussion over something that one of them was holding.  I came alongside of them and asked what they had.  It was a very small baby turtle.  I advised them that they should return it to the lagoon.  Yes, they would put it into the lagoon, but in fact, it hadn’t come from the lagoon.  It had fallen from the skies and landed on the path directly in front of them.  They were thoroughly mystified!   
Their mystification may have been compounded by being new to the US. Their English was halting, and I guessed they were probably Asian graduate students, or maybe post docs from the Botanical Gardens.  In any case, heaven-sent turtles were distinctly new to them. 
As best I could, I conveyed that it must have been dropped by a bird, but I didn’t think to put it together with the bird dropping the hard-shelled turtle onto the macadam pathway.    And I should have known – in Woods Hole, MA it was positively dangerous to sit at the base of the sundial by the Marine Biological Laboratory. The cement base made a favorite target for seagulls and their clams.
Herring Gull detail

Hearing Chelsea's account about the turtle dropping from the sky reminded me of how bird behavior sometimes intersects mythology and history—and in this case, both at the same time. The Greek playwright Aeschylus died in 455 BC—the cause of death was said to be a tortoise dropped by an eagle from above.  

Aeschylus was supposedly bald, and the story has come down that the eagle mistook his head for a rock. Birders figure the bird in question was more likely a Lammergeier, a vulture fairly common in southern Europe back then. Lammergeiers often carry large bones high in the air and drop them on rocks to shatter them—then they fly down to eat the exposed marrow. Presumably this method would also work for tortoise shells.

All the representations of Aeschylus that I’ve found show him with a pretty full head of hair, at least in front, but it makes a good story. Pliny wrote that Aeschylus was trying to stay outdoors in the first place because of a prophesy that he’d be killed by a falling item, though I’m not sure how being outdoors would lower the probability of that. In at least one version, I read more specifically that he’d been warned of a house falling on him. That story does a better job of explaining why he avoided being indoors, at least with the explanation that a tortoise shell amounts to the reptile’s house.

Whatever the mythological underpinnings and historical accuracy of Aeschylus being killed by a tortoise dropped on him from above, I’d be shocked and amazed to see a turtle fall down from the skies at the Skokie Lagoons or anywhere else. Like Aeschylus, I think staying out of doors as much as possible is a good thing that promises a longer, happier life, and I suppose I base that on a prophesy, too—not a prophesy of doom and gloom and falling houses, but one that promises that I’ll see many more birds outside than if I stay indoors. Chelsea’s wonderful story about this surprising experience made my day.