"Dad, why do we farm eagles?"
"Well, we do live at Eagle Farm, boy. Everyone farms eagles here. Why, are you getting sick of it?"
"No, it's not that, Dad. It's just that I wonder what it's all for."
"You sound like you don't like it."
"No, Dad, I really do love it! I love tending their nests up in their high roosts, I love taking care of the orphaned eaglets, I love teaching them to hunt their own food. It's really great, Dad! It's just ... well, why did you start farming eagles?"
"Like my pa before me and his pa before him, we farm eagles because it's the family and regional business, son. It's what we do because we're here and we're here because we do it. Simple."
"Yeah, okay, just ... what happens to the eagles after we farm them?"
"We ship them to the king, of course! You know that."
"Yes, I do, but ... what does he do with them? Why does he need a whole region of eagle farmers working to supply him with eagles?"
"Well ... he's the king, isn't he? Gotta have eagles if you're the king. Wouldn't do to have a king with no eagles, would it? All them other kings would be pointing and laughing at the king who had no eagles at all! Look at 'im, they'd say! Look at the old no-eagle king! Hasn't got a single eagle! Not fit to be king, is he? Why, if I were a king with a thousand eagles and I knew some other king had none, I'd take over from that no-eagle king as fast as you please."
Harold sighed exasperatedly. This kind of conversation with his father always seemed to go around in circles. A king needs eagles to be king, and that's that.
"Okay, Dad, how about this: what if our king didn't have eagles at all, but, I don't know, albatrosses or vultures or something? What would that be like?"
Harold's father squirmed uncomfortably. "Well, he'd be some kind of emperor or duke. No, wait, dukes is ducks, I think. Gotta have ducks to be a duke."
"Hold on, son, hold on, I'm just thinking here. Look, eagles are a form of status symbol for kings, they are. That just means that kings need eagles like you and me need a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. You've seen magpies collecting shiny things, right? All the coins, metal shavings and pretty stones they can get hold of? It's like that with kings and eagles! Only the king collects the birds, not the other way around."
"So it's just a tradition, then? The way of the land?"
"Right, Harry! Tradition!"
"So where did the tradition come from?"
"Oh, why didn't you ask that in the first place? There was this great battle once, a long time ago, between these two armies fighting for a couple of kingdoms, see? The kings had their soldiers lined up across the valley and ready to start, then suddenly one of them blew on this kind of whistle and a whole flock of eagles swooped down out of the trees and started pecking and clawing at the other army. They made such a nuisance of themselves that the other king had to withdraw and surrender! From then on, it just sort of escalated, you know, so one king kept a roost of five hundred eagles, then the next one had to have six hundred and so on. Of course they don't use them for battle any more. These days its all trades, land and crops, but they still keep the eagles, just in case."
"Just in case someone wants to attack them and they have to save themselves with eagle air superiority?"
"Exactly, my boy! Exactly!"
Harold sat, deep in thought for a while, then spoke up again. "Dad, has any king ever tried to train his eagles to go and attack the roost of another king directly?"
"Well, there'd hardly be any point, would there? All thos other kings have farms like ours, and since the eagles are just symbolic now, it wouldn't accomplish much."
"Okay, yeah, I suppose, but what if you managed to cripple the farms? If, say, you got a cuckoo's egg into one of the farmed eagle nests, and they started out-breeding the eagles?"
His father scratched his head for a second. "I suppose you could do something like that. Might make a bit of a fool of that other king if all his eagles turned into cuckoos. What made you think of that?"
"I think someone might be trying to do it to us."
"I found this cuckoo's egg in one of the nests this morning."
"Harold, you are as dumb as a sack of hammers, you know that? Why didn't you come in and tell me that right away? It was probably that skunk Evans. He's been eyeing our commission for years."
"I just thought, well, would it be so bad if we were farming cuckoos instead of eagles? It would be different, and it would make our king unique, wouldn't it?"
"Oh, yes, certainly it would, Harry. Unique! He'd be the most unique laughing stock of all the kings of the valley, he would!"
"Go on and get your ladder and climbing gear, son. We've got some more nests to check and probably a lot more cuckoo eggs to pitch out."
Mokalus of Borg
PS - To my surprise, there are no eagle farms at Eagle Farm.
PPS - I'm not totally sure there are any eagle farms anywhere, actually.