As we prepare to celebrate the 4th of July, let’s take a look at the biggest bad-ass of American symbolism, the American Bald Eagle.
Forget fireworks, apple pie, and baseball, the ultimate emblem of our freedom and national pride is this righteous raptor.
The American Bald Eagle is on the Great Seal of the United States. When the seal was adopted in 1872, the bird’s image was added as the symbol of “supreme power and authority” (source). The bald eagle is also on several state seals, and on the backs of several U.S. coins.
The bald eagle’s early rise to national awareness was not without controversy. Benjamin Franklin famously advocated for the turkey as our national bird instead. Franklin reportedly did not appreciate the bald eagle’s willingness to steal food from other birds.
In a flourish of revolutionary demagoguery, Franklin also argued that the turkey is “a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on” (source).
Okayyy… Ben was right, however, that turkeys are tough. I once came upon a “gang” (the proper term for a group of turkeys) of wild turkeys while I was hiking in a canyon in Southern Arizona; they were huge and menacing and I kept my distance.
Still, Ben Franklin should’ve known that American pride is only matched by our vanity – turkeys are not pretty, and not nearly as fierce-looking as the bald eagle. In a popularity contest, style over substance will win every time.
So the bald eagle became our country’s national bird as well as our national animal, and rightly so. Look at it. It oozes beauty and bad-assery in equal proportion.
A bald eagle can put the fear of God in you with its shrill keening and the glare of its yellow hooded dinosaur eyes.
It can tear you to pieces with either its hooked beak or any of its eight talons, which can grow up to two inches long and clamp down simultaneously to tear flesh and break bone.
The bald eagle can fly at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. The wingspan of a male bald eagle can approach seven feet across, and is even larger for a female.
Which is another reason why bald eagles rule – the females are larger than the males. Bald eagles also mate for life and co-parent their young, maybe because the male knows better than to fly the coop on its bigger, better half.
Here are more fun facts about the American Bald Eagle:
Beak and talons – All are made of keratin, the same as our hair and fingernails, and never stop growing. They’re naturally worn down in the wild by the raptor doing its predator thing, capturing and killing.
Eyesight – The bald eagle’s eyesight is at least four times better than ours, using eyes that are almost as large as ours.
Bald eagles don’t sweat – Of course they don’t. They cool off by panting, perching in shade, and holding their wings away from their body.
Nest – Bald eagles have built the largest tree nests ever recorded of any animal species, up to 13 feet deep, 8 feet wide, and over 1 ton in weight! One time I spotted a pair of bald eagles flying near their tree nest in southern Idaho during a road trip; I was at least half a mile away but I remember being impressed by the size of that nest.
Young aren’t “bald” – Bald eagles’ head feathers turn white only after the birds reach the age of 4 or 5 years old.
Habitat – Bald eagles live near coastlines and other bodies of water because they mainly feed on fish. They are found in Alaska and all 48 of the continental states; Hawaii is the only state that doesn’t have bald eagles.
Longevity – The bird’s average lifespan is 15 to 20 years, although they can live up to 30 years in the wild. A captive bald eagle reportedly lived to the age of 48, in West Stephentown, NY.
A Conservation Success Story – By the early 1970s, the American Bald Eagle was on the verge of near extinction with only 412 pairs nesting in the lower 48 states. Their demise was primarily due to DDT, a pesticide used in farming that made bald eagle eggshells too thin to carry their young long enough to hatch. After DDT was banned in 1973, bald eagle populations rebounded dramatically. The species was removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the lower 48 states in 2007.
Bald eagles remain protected under the laws of many states as well as under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These laws prohibit killing or otherwise “disturbing” bald and golden eagles, their nesting places or their chicks.
It’s a success story that even pro-turkey Ben Franklin would applaud.