Fun Facts About the Bad-Ass American Bald Eagle

320px-American_Bald_Eagle with flagAs 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.

320px-Wild_Turkey
turkey < bald eagle

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.

Bald Eagle vocalizingA 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.

Bald_eagle_nest_noaaNest – 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 Eagle flyingBald 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.

Additional sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bald_Eagle

http://www.baldeagleinfo.com/

http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/eagle/ExpertAnswer03.html

http://sciencenetlinks.com/blog/snl-educator/american-eagle-day-celebrating-conservation-success-story/

http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/bald-eagle/information/conservation/

6 Things to Remember on Memorial Day

Memorial Day has got to be the most schizophrenic, mixed-message holiday in America.

319px-Summerfest_2008_fireworks_7096Most people will focus on the holiday parts of the holiday: enjoying a three-day weekend, fireworks, barbecue, the start of summer… fun!

Many will travel. This year, AAA predicts that 34.8 million people will travel farther than 50 miles from home over the holiday weekend.

Many will shop. Countless retailers offer holiday sales, and like other major holidays (talking about you, Halloween and Christmas!), Memorial Day sales start ever earlier, this year as early as March.

There’s a lot to look forward to.

But it’s a holiday originally conceived to remember.

According to this 2009 CNN article: “Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s pay.”

Here are six more things to remember about Memorial Day.

1) Memorial Day’s origins are rooted in the devastation of the Civil War.

Battle_of_GettysburgThe Civil War was our bloodiest war, with approximately 620,000 soldiers killed either in battle or of disease – equal to about one in four soldiers or 2% of the population.

Communities were forced to confront death like never before. As many as two dozen different cities and towns claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day beginning in the mid-1860s.

But it was Waterloo, NY, that earned Congress’s official designation as Memorial Day’s birthplace. Waterloo began its annual day of remembrance on May 5, 1866, when businesses closed and the graves of dead soldiers were decorated.

2) For years, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, in recognition of the custom of decorating soldiers’ graves.

Civil War gravesDecoration Day was declared on May 30, 1868 by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former soldiers and sailors. The terms Decoration Day and Memorial Day were interchanged for years as a remembrance for Civil War dead.

After the United States was drawn into World War I, what became known more often as Memorial Day was broadened to include Americans killed in service to country in all of our nation’s wars.

Federal law finally declared “Memorial Day” the official name of the holiday in 1967.

3) Decorating military graves remains important today. 

Here in northern Virginia, on every Thursday before Memorial Day, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment of the Army place American flags at each of the over 260,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout the weekend, members of the regiment even patrol around the clock to make sure every flag stays aloft.

Thousands gather at the cemetery on Monday to watch the President or Vice President make remarks and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

4) There is a moment of silence at 3pm local time on Memorial Day.

moment of silenceA law was passed in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act, to reinforce the meaning of Memorial Day. The law asks Americans to “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.'”

5) We are still at war.

Americans are still sacrificing their lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere as we continue to fight the global war on terror. The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will officially end, however, in late 2014. Also, President Obama gave a significant speech yesterday arguing for an end to perpetual war in the post-9/11 era. You can read the full text of the speech here, or a good nonpartisan analysis here.

6) Veterans and military families need help.

Those Americans who survive war too often struggle disproportionately when they come home. Nearly one in seven homeless adults were veterans as of December 2011. 12.5% of veterans aged 18-34 were living in poverty in 2010, and the unemployment rate of veterans aged 18-24 still stands at over 20%.

disabled veterans playing basketballOn this Memorial Day, consider donating to non-profits that support veterans and their families, or, you can send a simple note of remembrance or thanks. Here are just three of the many well-governed non-profits helping veterans:

Operation Homefront – Focused on military families, its website features a “Current Needs” tab that lists specific needs for specific veterans; all cases are verified to ensure legitimacy.

Joining Forces – An initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, its website offers a clearinghouse of resources for veterans and their families. Its “Get Involved” link can help you find ways to help locally.

The National Gold Star Family Registry – Through this website, you can honor a “fallen hero” without spending a dime. It contains a registry of names of all who died in service to the country since the beginning of WWII. Just register and search the directory.

Have fun on Memorial Day, but also remember what it’s for.