The bald eagle is the national emblem of the United States. It appears in many government institutions and on official documents, as well as on the president’s flag, military insignia and billions of one-dollar bills. However, not everyone was happy about its choice as America’s national bird. 18th-century statesman Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey, believing the bald eagle to be “a bird of bad moral character”.
The bald eagle is the only eagle native to North America. It is strikingly colourful, with a yellow beak and eyes and a white head and tail that contrast with the rest of its dark-brown feathered body. It is not born this way: eaglets have a brown beak, eyes and feathers, but their colours change at the age of four or five. The bald eagle is covered in feathers and not actually bald! The origins of the name are uncertain, but possibly derived from an old English word ‘balde’ meaning white and referring to its head.
Eagles are apex predators. This means they are at the very top of the food chain, and have no natural predators to threaten them. They have very sharp eyesight and can see prey from up to two miles away. They scan lakes and rivers for fish swimming near the surface, then zoom down to grab them with their talons.
The bald eagle has been a symbol of America since the 18th century. On 4 July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies voted to declare America independent from Great Britain. It was decided that they needed an official seal as a symbol of the country’s “supreme power and authority.” For six years, members of Congress argued over what it should be. Finally, in 1782, the bald eagle was chosen.
Eagles are believed to be sacred by many Native American cultures and are said to carry messages between humans and the Creator. Numerous tribes use bald eagle feathers in spiritual ceremonies, to decorate traditional costumes or for healing or purification purposes. In the US, wildlife laws prohibit possessing or selling bald eagle feathers or other parts, but a special law called the eagle feather law makes an exception for their use in Native American spiritual practices.
In 1940, US Congress passed a law that made it illegal to kill bald eagles. However, overhunting and habitat loss led to a critical decline in their population. The main culprit was DDT, a pesticide that was banned in 1973. Between 1978 and 1995 the bald eagle was listed as an endangered species. Today, the population has recovered and this magnificent bird of prey is no longer under threat.
the us seal
It displays a bald eagle with a shield of thirteen red and white stripes covering the bird’s breast. In its right talon, the eagle holds an olive branch, in its left a bundle of thirteen arrows, and in its beak it carries a scroll bearing the words: “E Pluribus Unum” (meaning “One out of many”).