Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Sam the Eagle: Bald Eagle, Harpy Eagle, or Shoebill Stork?

Sam the Eagle and Jean Pierre Napoleon in a still from Muppets Most Wanted. I picked this photo because they have their index fingers against their face like they are thinking hard about something puzzling.

Sam the Eagle and Jean Pierre Napoleon in a still from Muppets Most Wanted. (Image via the Sam the Eagle Muppet Wiki.)

Like many Gen Xers I spent my formative years watching the Muppets. In all the hours I spent watching Kermit the Frog trying to corral the Muppet gang into some sort of coherent production, the fact that Sam the Eagle is blue never once made me question whether he was really meant to be an American bald eagle.

For those of you who have put your Muppet days behind you, Sam the Eagle is a tall, frowny, greyish blue bird who regularly condemns his fellow Muppets for frivolity and actions unbecoming of patriotic Americans. Thanks to his crankiness, he is regularly assigned roles such as:

  • The producer charged with ensuring his fellow actors adhere to their home network’s broadcast standards and practices on the TV series The Muppets
  • A CIA agent tasked with solving a string of burglaries in Muppets Most Wanted
  • A formal and deeply disapproving evening news anchor at WGF news in The Muppets
  • Captain America in the occasional Marvel parody poster
Poster shows Sam the Eagle dressed as Captain America against an American flag in the background
Sam the Eagle dressed as Captain America for a Marvel parody poster. (Image via the Muppet Wiki)

Because Sam the Eagle is so routinely portrayed as the most patriotic and unyielding of all the Muppets, I had simply taken his word for it that he was a bald eagle, with some creative license attached in the form of a George C Scott parody.

Pencil sketch of Sam the Eagle in profile with heavy bags under his eyes and a second chin
A early design sketch from 1975 for Sam the Eagle by Jim Henson playing up those George C. Scott-inspired jowls. (Via Muppet Wiki, “Sam the Eagle through the years”.)

A quick refresher on George C. Scott (1927-1999) for my younger readers:

An American actor, director, and producer, George C. Scott won, but refused to accept, not one, but two Oscars during his career. The first was for his role as Bert in The Hustler in 1962, and the second for his portrayal of General George S. Patton in the 1970 film, Patton. In explaining his rationale for turning down the awards, Scott reportedly said that he didn’t like feeling that he was competing with other actors. Furthermore, the Oscars were a “demeaning” “two-hour meat parade” and he didn’t want any part of them.

Photo of George C. Scott paired with his quote about the Academy Awards.
George C. Scott quote on the Academy Awards/Oscars: “The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.” (Image via AZ Quotes)

A man who feels that his fellow actors spend too much time in pursuit of things that are frivolous and beneath his dignity? Yep. I totally see the resemblance.

And so I wandered through life, filled with the happy conviction that I knew everything I needed to know about Sam the Eagle.

Exit, pursued by a stork

This happy state continued until last summer, when I saw this guy on Twitter. 

Bird Twitter sure looks different at night. (Link to Original Tweet from Jon @giftedrascal. Warning: Jon’s feed is not kid-friendly. I decided to include the entire tweet despite the fireball in Jon’s comment and not just an edited screen capture of it because the video embedded in the tweet really adds a lot. Play it and see what I mean.)

My immediate reaction was, as you might expect, terror. It got worse when I did a little Googling and realized that:

  1. this bird really exists — it’s an African shoebill stork
  2. it’s almost as tall as my 13-year-old
Shoebill stork with wings spread
At five feet tall, the shoebill stork is nearly as tall as The Thirteen-Year-Old (when did that happen?). Unlike her, it has a wingspan of up to 8 feet. (Wikimedia Commons image via How Stuff Works).

That concern only grew as I learned more about the African shoebill stork and its predilection for dining on baby crocodiles.

This bird is not to be trifled with.

“That bird looks like a Muppet,” my husband remarked, unfazed.

Now that you mention it…

Photo of a very surprised looking Sam the Eagle
Sam the Eagle. (Image via the Muppet Wiki)

Seeing the shoebill made me question everything I thought I knew about Sam the Eagle. While researching the possibility of Sam Eagle being based on something other than a bald eagle, I came across this article from How Stuff Works that posits that Sam the Eagle was actually modeled after the harpy eagle: “The Harpy Eagle: Terrifying Apex Predator or Creepy Halloween Costume?”

Full length portrait of a harpy eagle
The harpy eagle is the largest eagle in the world. Its talons are bigger than bear claws. (Image by Clément Jacquard, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Their argument, while entertaining, essentially boils down to the fact that the harpy eagle is the largest, most judgmental looking eagle on the planet, who, by the way, might also be interested in eating your toddler.

Now, I have no evidence to suggest that Sam the Eagle would ever eat a toddler, but he’s definitely both very large and exceptionally judgmental. Naturally, I’m now questioning everything I thought I knew about Sam the Eagle. There’s only one thing I can possibly do to resolve this: compare and contrast.

Sam the Eagle: bald eagle, harpy eagle, or shoebill stork?

Let’s examine the evidence.

Scientific names

As you know, one of the first things I like to do when deciding whether or not two things are related is to look at their scientific names. Sadly, while it was trivial to find the scientific names for the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), and the shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex), Sam the Eagle doesn’t seem to have ever been given one.

Verdict: No help.

Height

Fortunately, it was much easier to find heights for everyone.

American Bald Eagle: Up to 3 feet 2 inches

Harpy Eagle: Up to 3 feet 5 inches

Shoebill Stork: Up to 5 feet

Sam the Eagle: Just over 5 foot 6 inches.

Sam and Jean Pierre Napoleon pose in front of a suspect height wall chart in this still from Muppets Most Wanted.
Sam helpfully poses with Jean Pierre Napoleon in front of a suspect height wall chart in this scene from Muppets Most Wanted. (Image via the Sam the Eagle Muppet Wiki.)

Verdict: Height-wise, Sam the Eagle is most like the shoebill stork.

Coloring

American Bald Eagle: White and brown

Harpy Eagle: Grey, black, and white

Shoebill Stork: Greyish blue

Sam the Eagle: Blue

Verdict: Again, Sam the Eagle is most like the shoebill stork.

Beak shape

American Bald Eagle: Thick, yellow, and pointy.

Portrait of an American bald eagle against a blue sky
Bald Eagle. (Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service/Mike Lockhart, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Harpy Eagle: Skinny (relative to the harpy’s face), black, and sharp

Shoebill Stork: Thick, beige, often described as being shaped like a Dutch clog, hence the name shoebill.

Sam the Eagle: Thick, blue, and pointy

Verdict: If you ignore the color and focus on its shape relative to his face, Sam the Eagle’s beak looks most like a bald eagle’s.

Diet

American Bald Eagle: Fish, mammals, gulls, and waterfowl. Will steal food from other birds, scavenge, or eat garbage.

Harpy Eagle: Tree-dwelling mammals such as sloths, monkeys, and opossums; large birds such as macaws; and reptiles like iguanas and snakes

Shoebill Stork: Fish including lungfish, tilapia, and catfish; frogs; and reptiles like snakes, monitor lizards, and baby crocodiles

Sam the Eagle: I remember Sam the Eagle singing about how tasty chicken hawks were once, but I don’t actually remember him eating anything. Neither was I able to find anything in his Wiki about food. However, in January 2020, Walt Disney World announced that it would open a Regal Eagle BBQ Smokehouse at Epcot, hosted by Sam the Eagle. Presumably they would know. Therefore, I conclude that BBQ is Sam the Eagle’s favorite food.

Poster for "Sam's Centennial Cook-off. A Salute to all cook-offs, but mostly barbecue. A Competition fit for patriots and pit masters". Poster is done in red white and blue of course.
Concept art for the Regal Eagle Smokehouse at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Park. (Image via Disney Parks Blog)

Verdict: The only bird on this list that sounds like it might have eaten BBQ at some point is the bald eagle, with its propensity for eating garbage. If some of that garbage was acquired at a former picnic site, it likely would have included BBQ. So I guess, most like the bald eagle in diet?

Family Structure

American Bald Eagle: Thought to be monogamous, although bald eagles have been known to take a new mate after their previous one dies. Have 1-3 nestling eaglets at a time, which remain with their parents for between 17-24 weeks while they learn to fly and, presumably, hunt for themselves. Generally, bald eagles reproduce once a year, although in southern regions may lay a replacement clutch of eggs if something happens to their first set during incubation.

Harpy Eagle: Mate for life and raise one chick every two to four years. When a new chick is born, it remains in the nest for 6 months. The parents will continue feeding that chick for up to 10 months after it leaves the nest.

Shoebill Stork: According to The Freaky and Formidable Shoebill Stork is One Strange Bird article on How Stuff Works, shoebill storks are monogamous and work together to build their floating barge-like nests and raise their young. Although the female will lay up to three eggs per clutch, only the eldest survives. The first shoebill in the clutch to hatch eats the others.

Sam the Eagle: According to the Family Life section on the Sam the Eagle Wiki, Sam the Eagle has an ex-wife named Eunice and two kids who were in college as of 2011. Neither child is currently speaking to him, perhaps due to the deeply disapproving lecture he undoubtedly gave them when he learned that his son planned to become a taxidermist and that his daughter was dating an owl.

In Summary: As far as the number of young goes, Sam the Eagle is most like the bald eagle. His desire to have an ongoing involvement in his kids’ lives after they leave the nest sounds like the harpy eagle. The shoebill stork’s home life is just horrifying and I am not going to make any attempt to link Sam the Eagle to it.

Verdict: Inconclusive, although I do question whether the son’s interest in taxidermy might indicate a latent bald eagle-like interest in carrion.

Legs and feet

American Bald Eagle: Bright yellow legs and feet, with thick brown feathers on their thighs.

Harpy Eagle: Powerful yellow legs and feet, with black and white feathers on the thighs.

Shoebill Stork: Spindly, skinny long legs. Known to poop on their upper thighs in an effort to keep them cool.

Sam the Eagle: Thick yellow feet, with blue feathers on the thighs.

Verdict: Sam the Eagle’s feet are much more like an eagle’s feet than a stork’s. Which eagle is less clear. This portrait of Sam the Eagle dressed as Sam Arrow in Muppet Treasure Island makes me think that proportionately, Sam the Eagle’s feet are sized more like the harpy eagle than the bald eagle.

Sam the Eagle dressed as a sailor and seated in a row boat.
Sam the Eagle in his role as Sam Arrow in Muppet Treasure Island. (Image via Sam the Eagle Muppet Wiki)

So is Sam the Eagle a bald eagle, a harpy eagle, or a shoebill stork?

I’m going with yes. He seems to have at least a few things in common with all three, although I have no doubt he would find their behavior in the wild to be completely appalling.

Image of Sam the Eagle poking his head around the door and saying "You are all weirdos."
Sam the Eagle, as seen in The Great Muppet Caper: “You are all weirdos.” (Image via Templar Prophet on Imgur. See Sam the Eagle perform this quote live on YouTube here.)

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