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The Bald Eagle, Creature of Nature and an American Symbol

This post was written by Science Reference Specialist Ashley Cuffia.

Cheyenne, a seven-year-old female bald eagle, 2015. Carol M. Highsmith Archive. loc.gov/item/2015633472/

As summer wraps us in its heated grasp, we dream of pools and picnics with family and friends, and fireworks on warm summer nights.  Before long, the 4th of July is upon us and we remember the rights and freedoms that the architects of our country valiantly fought for. Our flags stream in the breeze, and we are inundated with the colors of red, white, and blue, and other symbols of the nation. One of those lasting symbols is the bald eagle.  We honor this creature of nature with a dedicated day on June 20th, officially called American Eagle Day.  This magnificent bird was once on the brink of extinction, but today we can celebrate it and the effort to bring it back from the edge.

The bald eagle has been the national bird of the United States since 1782, a symbol of pride and strength that earned it a place on the seal of the United States.

William Barton, one of the designers of the seal of the United States, who believed that the bald eagle should be an integral part of the seal stated that:

E pluribus unum / Andrew B. Graham, litho.
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 “The eagle displayed is the symbol of supreme power and authority, and signifies congress, and that the olive branch and arrows that it holds in its talons are the powers of peace and war” (Marcovitz, 25).

Contrary to its name, the bald eagle is not actually bald, but has a full head of feathers. Its name comes from the word “piebald,” meaning a place of black and white patches. Both the males and the females can have a wing span of 7 to 8 feet from one wing tip to the other and unlike many other species of eagles, the bald eagle is only naturally found in North America (Stalmaster, 11).

A striking bird with a white head and tail, yellow beak and eyes, and a full body of dark brown feathers, it is not actually born looking this way. It goes through such a metamorphosis that many scientists originally thought the U.S. had a third species of eagle. The eaglet is born with brown feathers, beak and eyes. Around its fifth birthday, the eaglet starts to make the color change and becomes the eagle that we recognize.

Eagles usually lay two to three eggs at time, normally a week or so apart. Being high flying birds, the nests are located 80 to100 feet up in the air. Since they mate for life, the breeding pair will return to the same nest every year to lay their eggs and enlarge the nest. Nests have been found that are the size of cars, the average weighing up to 2,000 pounds (Marcovitz, 16).

American bald eagle, Marcus Wickliffe Baldwin, 1898.
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In 1940 Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act making it illegal to kill the birds or hurt their eggs.  However, over the next 70 years we almost lost the eagle, as it was forced to the brink of extinction.

In the 1960’s the National Audubon Society had completed a survey showing there were only 417 breeding pairs of eagles left in the lower 48 states. After searching for what might have been causing the decline of the eagles, scientist discovered the culprit was DDT, or Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a pesticide that started being used in the 1960’s. Unknown at the time, DDT caused eagles and other birds to absorb less calcium, so that when they laid their eggs, the shells, weakened from the chemical, would be crushed when the parents nested over them. This led to a rapid and terrible decline in bird populations all over the country (Wurster, 21).

In 1973, the use of DDT was banned and that same year the Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress, giving protections to dozens and dozens of species on the brink of extinction. Through captive breeding, protection laws and stopping the use of DDT, the bald eagle was downgraded to a threatened species in 1994.  By 2007, they had made such a comeback that they were taken off the endangered species list entirely (Rauber, 32).

Interesting facts about an icon:

Comic book illustration depicting Superman with a bald eagle on his arm against an American flag background, following the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States / A. Olivetti.
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  • The bald eagle has appeared in a variety of comic books, ranging from Superman and Super Girl to Captain America, gracing the cover of at least a dozen different issues.
  • The eagle has been incorporated into many versions of both our coin and paper money and is currently on the back of the quarter and the dollar bill.
  • When you hear the call of the bald eagle in movies or on TV, it is actually the call of a red tailed hawk. As the bald eagle has such a quiet sounding call, film makers wanted something more imposing for such a powerful looking creature. Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • On July 20, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 landed their lunar module “Eagle” on the surface of the moon. They called the module the ‘Eagle,’ as their insignia was a bald eagle landing on the moon with an olive branch. This signified strength and peace landing on the moon. Apollo 11 Lunar Module.
  • As many as 4,000 eagles have been recorded gathering on a single riverbank waiting to catch spawning salmon.
  • They can dive at up to 100 mph to catch fish from the water.
  • The largest nest ever found was 9 feet 6 inches across, 20 feet deep, and weighed 4,000 pounds.
  • States with the bald eagle on their flag or seal include: Alabama, Illinois, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

Government agencies with the eagle in the logo: (image 5-7)

  • Presidential & Supreme Court Seals
  • Departments of Defense, Commerce, Justice, Labor and the State Department
  • CIA, National Labor Relations Board, Social Security, Library of Congress, Patent Office and dozens more

Seal of the Library of Congress, 1800. //www.loc.gov/item/92504561/

Seal of the President of the United States, Theodor Horydczak Collection. //www.loc.gov/item/thc1995013048/PP/

Official seal of the United States Supreme Court, ca 1950. //www.loc.gov/item/2002714591/

Library Resources on bald eagles:

Catalog Search: Print books

Music Division: Sheet Music

Prints and Photographs Division: Photos, drawings and other images

Law Library: Legislation and laws of protection

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