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A Symbol of Life and Freedom

The American Bald Eagle – A Symbol of Life and Freedom
| By Lynda Lacroix

The United States congress adopted the American Bald Eagle in 1782 as the national emblem. Native Americans considered these birds to be holy and their feathers sacred adorning themselves with feathers to show their rank in the tribe or their prowess in battle. Not everyone thought these birds to be so honorable. According to myths and stories, they were hunted and slaughtered without regard, reducing their number from the thousands to only a few hundred nesting pairs. Although Congress enacted the Bald Eagle Protection Act to protect the symbol of our nation and to prevent these beautiful birds from becoming extinct, other battles were still to be fought in the war of survival before this magnificent bird started the uphill climb to recovery.


Americans grow up with a mental picture of the American Bald Eagle because it is used as a symbol on some currency, flags, and memorials as well as being a popular model for paintings to adorn our walls. It is easily recognized with a dark body and white feathers on both the head and tail. The female eagles are larger than the males, weighing up to fourteen pounds, while the males generally weigh seven to ten pounds. Their lifespan can be more than thirty years in the wild. Mating for life, they often nest within a hundred miles of the nest where they were reared; laying a clutch of two or three eggs yearly in a nest they expand year after year, the nest sometimes reaching ten feet in diameter. Both parents participate in the incubation of the eggs, a process which will take between thirty-four and thirty-six days (hatching usually a day or two apart). A young eagle or fledgling will leave the nest between seventy and ninety-eight days of age. Bald Eagles will breed beginning in February through July away from human disturbances in open areas. Eagles will migrate from Northern area further south for the winter, gathering along waterways with an abundant food supply.

Habitats for the bald eagles include waterways or estuaries, large lakes, seacoast area, reservoirs, and major rivers, but ample food source is not the only requirement for the large birds. They must also have perching and nesting areas to accommodate this species.

Much of the bald eagles original habitat has been lost since the Europeans arrived in North America due to deforestation for towns, farms, and for lumber to support the growth. This deforestation has destroyed perching and nesting sites, forcing the raptors to seek other roost such as the top of a high voltage electric pole.

The bald eagle was adopted by the U.S. Congress as the national emblem in 1782. At that time, the number of eagles was estimated as high as seventy-five thousand. By 1940, the number had reduced so drastically that Congress enacted the Bald Eagle Protection Act. This act made it illegal to harass, kill, or possess the birds or any bird or any bird parts without a permit. Although this act offered a promise for the future of the eagle, the struggle for survival was far from over. Farmers and ranchers viewed the eagle as a threat to their livestock but their primary prey is fish although they will eat waterfowl, small mammals or rodents, and carrion.

The chemical era for agriculture and pesticides after World War II ushered in new problems for the troubled population of eagles while fighting the war on insects. DDT and other pesticides applied to lawns and crops washed into the nations’ water sources and contaminated water plants, fish, and small creatures, supplying a deadly dose to the eagles as they ate the fish where the chemicals concentrated in their tissues. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DDT was originally used to control mosquitoes along coastal and wetland areas. DDT accumulated in the birds’ fat as the DDT broke down in the birds’ body and slowed the release of calcium into the eggshells produced by the females. These birds in turn laid eggs with thin shells that would be crushed by the parents incubating them.

The Secretary of the Interior in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 listed bald eagles south of the fortieth parallel as endangered. The population numbers had dropped to fewer than 500 pairs in the lower forty-eight states mainly due to habitat destruction, hunting, and the use of pesticides like DDT. Scientists determined the link between DDT and the lower number of eagles and the United States government banned its’ use in 1972. Another battle had been won, but the war was still not over.

Although the bald eagle received protection first under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it wasn’t until after the Endangered Species Act passes in 1973, that conservation measures to protect the eagle were implemented. The Endangered Species Act allowed distinct populations of animal species to be listed and new categories of threatened species to be added. Endangered species are defined by the Act as any species in danger of extinction throughout a significant portion or all of its’ range. A captive-breeding program to produce birds for release into the wild was started by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition to the captive breeding program, the National Wildlife Refuges and local raptor rehabilitation centers work to improve habitats or by rehabilitating injured eagles so they may be released back into the wild. Most of these organizations work through volunteers and are funded by donation, providing medical care for the birds and public education through presentations and exhibitions. These measures, coupled with law enforcement and protection of the nesting sites during breeding, helped the recovery of the species, but even with these measures there were still challenges ahead for the Bald Eagle.


Another cause of mortality has been lead poisoning with more than two hundred and twenty five cases diagnosed in the last 15 years. The National Wildlife Federation succeeded in the early 1980s in getting the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban the use of lead shot nationwide in hunting waterfowl, Waterfowl that had eaten or been wounded by lead shot would cause lead poisoning in eagles, which could weaken or even kill adult eagles. Since the ban, waterfowl hunters use shells loaded with steel shot instead of lead. Although the change to steel shot has helped the problem of lead poisoning, it has not cured it since upland hunters can still use lead shot, while other reports show some birds have been poisoned from lead fishing sinkers. In order to reduce the risk, people should not leave solid debris such as lead sinkers in rivers and lakes where there is a chance they could be ingested by an eagle.

Another battle still being fought concerns the toxic effects of mercury affecting eagles with a variety or neurological problems that can alter motor skills and reduce the rate of eggs hatching. The source of the mercury has been identified entering waterways as air emissions from solid waste incineration sites as well as other sources. The impact on the bald eagle population in the Southeastern Region is under investigation.

In the first half of this century illegal shooting still posed a threat to eagles, this impact has been reduced through public education and law enforcement. Some deaths still occur on power poles and lines that have not been redesigned to protect raptors, although the poles are usually configured to reduce the occurrence of electrocutions.

Humans and their disturbances are still a long-term threat to the Bald Eagle. Recreational activity in nesting sites can impact the reproduction processes of these birds. Eagles prefer to breed away from human disturbance in the open and adult birds can be flushed from the nests during incubation and brooding periods. This can expose the eggs or young to adverse conditions. In order to reduce some of the problems caused by these disturbances, land management practices have included zones of protection restricting public access during crucial times. If an individual finds themselves in an eagle habitat, he or she should avoid disturbing the eagles by staying at least three hundred feet away and by keeping an obstruction between them.

Although each of these problems individually is no longer a serious threat to the existence of the Bald Eagle, collectively, they can cause serious problems if not monitored. On August 11, 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Endangered Species, ruled that the American Bald Eagle would be removed from the endangered list but would remain listed as threatened even though the eagle has made a spectacular comeback to nearly 5,800 pairs. In a CBS new report on June 29, 2000 Cindy Hoffman stated that lawyers for the government were trying to determine if the birds’ habitat would be protected by federal law if it is taken off the endangered species list. Due to all of these efforts, generations to come will be able to look up and see our national symbol flying overhead instead of just seeing in on our currency, stamps or flag poles.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will work with state agencies to monitor the status of the bald eagle for five years, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act. They are the principal federal agency responsible for protecting, conserving, and enhancing wildlife, fish, and their habitats while managing over 150 million acres, 550 units in the National Wildlife Refuge System, operating sixty-six national fish hatcheries and 37 wetland management districts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the Endangered Species Act, enforces Federal wildlife laws, conserves and restores wildlife habitats, manages migratory bird populations, and helps foreign countries with their conservation practices, while overseeing the Federal Aid programs to state fish and wildlife agencies. In addition to all of these duties, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the National Eagle Repository in early 1970 to provide feathers from the Golden and Bald Eagles for Native American ceremonial purposes located at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Denver, Colorado. The repository is a collection point for dead eagles. The Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibits the taking, transportation, barter, trade, import or export, sale of any part of and the possession of eagles. This Act makes it illegal to possess and eagle or body part from an eagle. Possession of an eagle body part, even a feather, without a permit, is a felony and can carry a fine up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will issue a permit to a Native American to receive and possess eagle feathers from the Repository for use in religious ceremonies, but there is a large demand with thousands on a waiting list. The Repository receives around nine hundred eagles per year and it could take up to two and a half years for an order to be filled for even a single feather.

As of January 2009, The American Bald Eagle is still listed as a threatened species for certain populations in the Sonoran Desert (Region 2) but is listed as Taxon-recovered for the lower 48 states. Diligent observation is still required to maintain this recovery but proper steps were taken to provide the necessary protection for these magnificent birds.

The American people have risen to the occasion to protect the symbol of our nation and because of this dedication; the American Bald Eagle has made a spectacular recovery from near extinction. The story of the fight to save this magnificent bird shows the same courage and honor as we associate with the bird itself. It has been an uphill battle, but it is one the American people rose to meet head on. Maybe one day on the long drive to school, in the early morning hours, I can look up at one of those beautiful birds soaring high above the trees and feel pride in knowing it is there because we cared enough not to give up.

Lynda M Lacroix is an accomplished writer with 40 years experience working with nature and species that inhabit this planet. She has dedicated her life to methods of co-existing on this planet; reducing our carbon footprint; preservation of species; and now wants to educate those interested in living a homestead life. A homestead life uses the circle of life merged with new technologies bringing back basic values that have been forgotten. Click here for more: http://alternativehomesteading.com.

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