In a letter to his daughter not long after the United States won its independence, Benjamin Franklin branded the bald eagle a “bird of bad moral character.” He wished, he wrote, that it “had not been chosen as the representative of our country.” Many believe that he also lobbied for the turkey as national bird. That’s not true, however. In fact, Congress has never chosen a national bird, as it has a national mammal (the bison) and national tree (the oak).
What the Continental Congress did was put the bald eagle on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. Long venerated by Native cultures, Haliaeetus leucocephalus lives only in North America, a distinction that suited a young republic eager to assert an American-born identity separate from Europe. Ever since, the bald eagle has reigned as a symbol of national unity and strength.
Despite Franklin’s views, Americans immediately began displaying its image in public ceremonies and on organizational regalia. Yet they simultaneously targeted the living bird for eradication, as they did other predators, such as wolves and coyotes. Throughout the 19th century and beyond, an eagle seen was an eagle to be shot. Newspapers, government officials and ornithologists wrongfully accused the species, which primarily eats fish, of carrying away sheep, calves and pigs—livestock that exceed its lifting power. Detractors even cautioned mothers that the white-headed raptors kidnapped babies. “For, sad to relate,” the New York Sun wrote in 1905, “the original of our national emblem is a scavenger, a coward and a thief.”
Once a fixture across the country, the persecuted bird began disappearing from an increasing number of states. “Of the millions of people who daily see our national emblem on the coins and arms of our country,” Nature Magazine noted in 1923, “a very large proportion have never seen an American eagle in the sky.” In 1940, a year before declaring war against fascist tyranny, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act to preserve “a symbol of the American ideals of freedom.” Harming an eagle now brought fines and a prison sentence.
Yet five years later, when eagles were poised for recovery, DDT became available for general use. Collateral victims of the pesticide’s widespread application included countless fish and birds, and by 1963, the bald eagle’s nesting population in the contiguous U.S. had fallen to a despairing 487 pairs—far fewer than what a single state would have hosted before the Revolution.
A Soaring Return
Bald eagles have faced numerous threats posed by humans since 1900. Their comeback is a tribute to their resilience and the lessons we’ve learned.
At the same time, Americans had fouled their own nest: Biocides tainted their food, factory and automobile exhaust their air, and waste products their water. Recognizing that their quality of life, even survival, depended on the same healthy environments that nonhuman species required, 20 million Americans nationwide participated in clean-up and tree-planting campaigns and protest marches on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
Congress responded in swift order with a series of landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. In just one year, 1972, the EPA banned the use of DDT, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposed harsher penalties for harming eagles, and Congress gave decisive bipartisan support to the Clean Water Act. Marking its 50th anniversary this October, the CWA initiated the revitalization of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters, the majority of which were unsafe for fishing and swimming. Nothing would be more essential to the eagles’ comeback than the CWA restoring their watery habitats.
Although the number of nesting pairs was inching upward, eagles were among the first species to land on the Endangered Species List in 1974. Two years later, during the nation’s bicentennial, Fish and Wildlife launched initiatives to reintroduce eagles to revitalized environments, counting on their domestic instincts to advance their recovery. Couples mate for life, return to the same nest every breeding season and nurture their young (typically two) with such care that by the time they leave the nest, juveniles often outweigh their parents. Having elevated their breeding population in the lower 48 to more than 6,000, bald eagles were ready to come off the Endangered Species List in 1999 (bureaucratic inertia delayed delisting until 2007).
While more than a third of the world’s national animals, from India’s tigers to Tanzania’s Masai giraffes, are endangered, bald eagles are thriving. During the 2010s, their population quadrupled, reaching roughly 300,000 in the contiguous U.S.—equivalent to the estimated number in the 18th century. America’s bird has become a symbol of a society that has forged a wiser balance with nature and a more secure future for humankind. Bald eagles have not changed since the adoption of the Great Seal—they have shown us that we can change.