Honoring the bald eagle as America’s national emblem is a tradition dating back to the Continental Congress. Today we continue to celebrate this bird as the population experiences a resurgence.
In 1782 the bald eagle was selected as the new country’s official symbol, and the design of the Great Seal of the United States was created.
As the national bird, the bald eagle appears on official U.S. seals, the presidential seal and flag, coins, currency, and more.
Native to North America, Haliaeetus leucocephalus has represented many ideals to United States citizens.
The founding fathers chose the bald eagle as a symbol of supreme power and authority, at a time when this newly forged country had to demonstrate their ability to be strong and independent.
The only sea eagle endemic to this continent, they have a seven foot (2.13 m) wingspan and weigh approximately ten pounds (4 kg). Fierce fliers, they can reach speeds of 35-43 mph (56-70 km/h).
A long-lived bird (30-35 years), the eagle also represents longevity. Native Americans honor the bald eagle for courage, wisdom, and strength.
In the 18th century there were 300,000-500,000 bald eagles soaring above the 48 contiguous states.
In the 19th century, as more Europeans settled in America, farming increased.
This opportunistic carnivore, hunting fish, birds, and mammals, unfortunately became known as a farming threat, and was frequently shot on sight.
In the 20th century, with the extensive use of pesticides, especially DDT, the decline of the bald eagle reached an all-time low.
Requiring 4-5 years to breed, in addition to persecution, poisoning, and declining habitat, the population severely declined: 412 pairs in the 1950s. By 1967 the bald eagle had become endangered.
In 1940 the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was approved, and in 1972 DDT in the U.S. was banned.
A remarkable success story, today bald eagles can be found throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The first time I ever saw a wild bald eagle, I was canoeing in Washington State. In the distance I saw a white spot, the size of a pinhead, in the forest. Since then I have seen numerous bald eagles, sometimes in refuges that previously did not have them.
My favorite bald eagle experience was in Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border. It was frigid in January, and 5 a.m., as we waited for the sun to rise when the wintering population would leave their nighttime roosts.
A few early risers at a time, the bald eagles began to lift from the treetops, culminating to a count of 49. We stood by the car, alone in the freezing morning, as bald eagles surrounded us and then disappeared into the day.
240 years after our country’s government and livelihood was established, we continue to embrace this powerful bird.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander