We have just celebrated our countries birthday – a day to remind ourselves of the great gift of freedom; freedom from oppression, freedom to speak freely, freedom of religion, and freedom to pursue the best life can offer. These freedoms have been protected for more than 200 years and countless Americans have given their lives to ensure that future generations will be able to also have those same freedoms.
Six years after we asserted our indepence, it was decided that this new country needed a national emblem. The Bald Eagle was chosen June 20, 1782 as that emblem, but it wasn’t until 1787 when the eagle was officially accepted. By this time many states had already used the eagle in their coat of arms.
There is no denying its size (only the California condor is bigger) which the founders thought represented great
Seeing one Bald Eagle is a thrill – seeing a pair together is hitting the jackpot.
strength. It is a long lived bird – some wild adults live to be 25 years and with its white head and tail, and piercing gaze it is a majestic looking bird. Its lifestyle also represents freedom; the ability to go when and where it chooses.
If Ben Franklin had had his way, our illustrious emblem would have been a Wild Turkey. He observed that Bald Eagles were “a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him..….. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest. . . of America” In his opinion the turkey exemplified courage and was “a true original native of America”
But the eagle won the day and now everyone becomes a bird watcher when one of these great birds soars overhead or perchs on a branch high in a tree. I believe we treasure them more today, knowing how close they came to extinction. It was scientific observation and research, as well as anecdotal information that revealed some frightening facts regarding our national bird.
When the Eagle was chosen as our emblem there were believed to be approximately 100,000 nesting pairs in the country. By the mid to late 1800’s people were beginning to notice a decline in their population which was most likely due to the loss of prey species, nesting habitat (the biggest trees), and shooting. They were believed (falsely) to attack flocks of chickens.
In 1940 scientists announced that the species was “threatened with extinction.” In an attempt to stop the loss, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited killing, selling, or possessing the species. But there was another, more insidious killer working against the birds – a chemical developed at the end of WWII known as DDT. This was contaminating the fish the birds ate and getting into their systems thereby causing a thinning of their eggshells and nest failure.
This graphic shows how DDT moves up through the food chain. Luckily it is now gone, but lead remains a serious problem.
In 1963 there were only 487 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles remaining in the entire country. That’s how close we came to losing them. Even though it was known that DDT was to blame for this most recent disaster, it wouldn’t be until 1972 that DDT was banned in this country (it is still sold to other countries). In 1978 the Bald Eagle was put on the Endangered Species List. Through governmental and citizen efforts the eagles recovered and were officially taken off the List in 2007. This too we should celebrate on the 4th of July.
I wish I could say that it has been smooth sailing for the eagles since then, but lead in the environment continues to kill them. They are not being shot with lead bullets, but they are consuming them in the carcasses or gut piles left over from hunting season. And lead sinkers are still ending up in fish that the eagles eat. Lead is deadly once it gets into the blood stream of a bird.
It is up to us to stop these practices, if we truly want the Bald Eagle to prosper. So I say – long live our republic and long may eagles soar over our country, both as a symbol and as a living example of freedom.
By Kate Crowley