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.

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:

A Dying Mother and What Matters Most

Yellow_Flowers_(3) -- large yellow flowerMy mother turned 92 this past Sunday, June 16. Two days before that, my family enrolled her in hospice.

That Friday afternoon, I’d arrived at her home in Pennsylvania looking forward to her birthday celebration with almost the entire family. So the news of hospice jarred and surprised. At first.

Then it wasn’t a surprise at all.

My mom had been declining noticeably in recent months. Her weak legs and broken knees stopped carrying her for good in late April; ramps were installed in her house and her transport chair was used every time to move her from her bed to her chair and wherever else she was willing to go. She’d been slowing down and losing strength.

But that Sunday, we celebrated Mom’s 92nd birthday in style. She rose to the occasion – she got dressed up, sat in her chair and then in her transport chair for a long time in different parts of the house. She ate dinner with us in the dining room and had cake and ice cream. She was lucid and wisecracking and she enjoyed herself.

Laburnum_anagyroides_yellow_flowers -- in sunlightThere comes a point, in witnessing a parent’s descent into extreme old age, when you dread every illness whether major or minor: is this the one that will lead to death? I’d buried my father in my mind a couple of times when he struggled with illnesses, long before he actually died four years ago at age 93.

I’ve done the same with my mom. She fell a few years ago and broke her shoulder. I thought it could lead to the end. But she recovered. Last fall, she battled bronchitis for months – she thought it was pneumonia and so did I. But she recovered.

Now, however, it appears my mom is battling some kind of infection, and losing. After several tests, we still don’t know what it is.

But it doesn’t matter. Her body is shutting down. According to her long-time internist,  her bone marrow and white blood cell count is so low that, if she has an infection, she can’t fight it off. Putting her in the hospital could lead to a diagnosis, but then what? She is a poor candidate for surgery, plus hospitals can be deadly to those with compromised immune systems.

Instead her doctor talked about keeping her home and “keeping her comfortable,” that euphemism for a looming death knell. Soon after, he recommended hospice. I’m extremely grateful to this wise physician for charting a peaceful demise for my mom.

399px-Little_Yellow_FlowersSo here we are. My family is lucky – for years now, our mother has had an amazing team of caregivers who love her and treat her with the greatest compassion and care.

I plan to visit Mom when I can, including this weekend; I’m only a two-hour drive away.

And I face this – the challenge of the most stressful of times, the saddest of times, when losing a parent is hard no matter what, and all of the other stresses in your life are at once magnified and trivialized.

Throughout, it’s important to remember what matters most:

  • Being present – As long as my mom is still with us, in spirit with thoughts and prayers, and in body when I can — sitting with her, holding her hand, looking into her hazel eyes with love.
  • Mourning the loss – It’s not a choice, I know. But my father’s death taught me that the process of recognition and remembrance are important and therapeutic and not to be done passively. It’s hard, and may be even harder with my mom.
  • Yellow_flowers -- two flowersCelebrating the life – My family is too traditional to call a funeral a “celebration of life” like some families do. But celebrate we will, in the grand Irish Catholic tradition – by getting sloppy drunk and telling stories of our mom’s great wit while laughing and crying through it all. Irish-style wakes are the best.
  • Accepting the love and support of others – This can be surprisingly hard. But it’s important to embrace the outpouring from others. I look forward to seeing relatives and friends of my mom, and of all of us, at her services. Death brings people together.
  • Taking care of yourself – Grief takes a toll, so you need your rest. You go ahead and have that cry in the middle of the grocery store. Then throw a treat in the shopping cart. You schedule a spa treatment. You take a trip. You remind yourself: Your dead parents will want you to go on and live well and be happy.
  • Feeling the love that stays with you forever – This is the greatest gift of life, the greatest gift of all.

It’s one hell of a to-do list, but I’ll give it my best.

How Conflict Revealed a Father’s Love

320px-Happy_Fathers_Day--pink flowerAs Father’s Day approaches, I’m reminded of the turning point in my relationship with my late father toward the end of his life.

He and I were in the middle of a fight one night, the one and only serious fight we’d ever had, when he paid me the highest compliment he ever gave me:

“There are many things I admire about you, Kate, but your politics is not one of them.”

We were fighting about the Iraq War; it was 2004, I think, and I was visiting my parents on the east coast while I was living in Arizona. My dad was always a staunch Republican, and I was the lone Democrat at that time in our large family. The post-9/11 world had pushed our politics farther apart – he had grown more conservative, and I, more liberal. He was also in his upper 80s by then.

So you might wonder: what was I doing picking a political fight with someone as old as my dad?

But maybe you didn’t know my dad. He was a highly intelligent, charismatic, alpha male right up to the final weeks of his life when he died at age 93. A successful businessman, he was disciplined and tough although he had a sweet and silly side, too.

He was used to winning, and you didn’t debate him lightly even in his old age.

Until that fight, though, we had always been able to discuss politics in a civil, even light-hearted and teasing way, agreeing to disagree. We did so regularly for as long as I could remember. It was a big part of our relationship.

But no more, after that night. The fight had turned dark and accusatory, with recriminations like “you’re wrong” and “no, you’re wrong!” being traded. The kind of hopeless, bitter face-off we’d never stooped to before. But it reflected the times, when our country was in turmoil.

Luckily, no one else had witnessed it. My father and I were off by ourselves, out of earshot of other family members. To my dad’s credit, he was the one who defused it and backed down, refusing to discuss the war further.

I was shaken by our fight, but I also remember being surprised to hear him say he admired me, for “many” things.

He’d never told me that before.

Maybe you’re wondering what those things were. I still do. I never asked and he never said. I was too upset to ever bring it up, after knowing our relationship had changed in a fundamental way.

We never discussed politics again. My dad died five years later.

Sadly, I know too many stories of strained family relationships and friendships – including broken friendships – as a result of our country’s increasingly polarizing politics.

You may have similar stories of your own.

As a society, we remain bitterly divided, and I don’t know how or when it will end. I’ve learned to avoid political debates with people I care about whose opinions differ from mine. I still look back on that fight with my dad with sadness.

But mostly now, I choose to focus on the two positive things that came out of our fight.

1) My father’s compliment. There are many things I admire about you, Kate…

It doesn’t matter what they were. It was mainly a reminder of how supportive my dad was of me throughout my life, despite our differences. Whatever I wanted to do, he said I could do it. He never tried to discourage me, or make me feel like I couldn’t be the best at what I wanted to pursue. He always had faith in me.

2) My father’s decision to defuse the fight. This was unusual, and it took me a long time to appreciate its significance. When things got hot between us, he suddenly calmed and said: “We can’t talk about this anymore.”

He chose to make peace instead of to “win” the fight.


Because even in conflict, my dad never lost sight of what was the most important thing between us.


National Parks Nurture Us, Let’s Nurture Them

This past Memorial Day, I enjoyed a visit with my friend, Nancy, to Arlington National Cemetery, which is part of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). I hadn’t been to the cemetery in years, so I was excited to visit especially after I’d blogged about it the previous week as one of the most visible symbols of Memorial Day.

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia

We spent a couple of hours that pleasant Monday morning walking among the rows of white marble gravestones that grid over 600 acres of the grassy hills and dales of a former plantation in Arlington, VA. The cemetery rises up just south of the Potomac River and offers spectacular views of Washington, DC. The grounds are grand and serene.

An Historic Home Needs a Face Lift

But my heart sank as we approached the top of the hill to visit Arlington House, the mansion and historic centerpiece of the property. The home’s history is remarkable: It dates from 1802 and was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of President George Washington, and later was home to Robert E. Lee until he became commander of the rebel forces during the Civil War.

We were still many yards away from the house when it was obvious that the exterior of this Greek Revival masterpiece badly needed renovation, particularly the wooden façade of the large pediment. The dull beige paint is cracked and peeling and the whole front looks shabby.

Sequestration Won’t Help

Arlington House from below
Arlington House from below

Arlington House had undergone some interior renovation the year before, I was told later in a phone call to a park ranger. She added that there are plans to renovate the exterior next year. But it’s unclear whether that will happen, given the 8% budget cuts that the National Park Service will have to absorb due to federal sequestration.

Those are the automatic cuts to all federal government discretionary spending that took effect on March 1 of this year. They are dumb cuts that no one wanted, which do nothing to address the long-term budget deficits that cloud our country’s fiscal future.

So this is, in part, a cautionary tale of what to expect as the summer park season begins.

Funding Has Fallen Short for Years

After I returned home from Arlington National Cemetery later that day, I turned on NBC News and watched a segment called: “National Parks Show Signs of Wear and Tear.” It included a depressing litany of the consequences of budgetary woes that the park service has, in fact, suffered for several years:

  • 7 years of flat budget appropriations, despite rising costs
  • 900 jobs unfilled, including park rangers
  • 1000 seasonal jobs cut
  • park police furloughed
  • park entrances unmanned
  • a maintenance backlog of $11 billion!

About 400 sites make up the National Park system – parks, monuments, battlefields and coastlines – which over 280 million people will visit this year including millions of tourists from all over the world. The National Park Service operates on a total budget of about $2.6 billion, a pittance by federal budget standards. The massive backlog resulted from over 10 years of shifting funds away from investments like maintenance to operations.

Our Parks Bring Huge ROI

Hundreds of thousands gather on the National Mall to celebrate 4th of July
Hundreds of thousands gather on the National Mall to celebrate 4th of July, Washington, DC

Forget the value of their historical and natural assets for a moment: National parks also offer a huge return on investment (ROI) for taxpayers. In February, the National Park Service released its annual report, which includes a measure of its economic impact based on peer-reviewed research done in cooperation with Michigan State University.

In 2011, National Park visitors generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide. That means for every $1 spent by taxpayers to fund NPS, national parks generated more than $10 in economic activity. One third of the $30 billion total spent by visitors went directly into communities within 60 miles of a park.

Yet the entire park system is being starved of maintenance, staff, and a funding mechanism that keeps pace with costs let alone invests in its future.

Relish Your Park Experiences

Before I tell you how you can help, I’d ask that you take a quick mental inventory of all of the national park experiences in your life. Odds are you’ve had more than you realize.

Go ahead, right now. Picture those places in your mind.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls, California

Remember how you felt: seeing the Diorama and measuring the cost of our worst war at Gettysburg National Battlefield; reading the inscriptions of Lincoln’s speeches at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall; smelling saltwater and listening to the waves as you walked the beautiful beach at Cape Cod National Seashore.

Then turn your mind’s eye to the gigantic, muscular parks of the great American west: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, White Sands, Olympic. These places are almost alien in their awesomeness, staggering in their raw majesty.

How small did you feel standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon? How blown away were you by the roaring beauty of two-tiered Yosemite Falls?

How to Help

Here are simple steps you can take to help preserve our national parks.

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon, Arizona

When visiting a park:

  • Don’t – move or remove anything. Not one flower, not one rock. These are public assets to be preserved. Look at them, photograph them, wax poetic over them. That’s your right for paying admission, but that’s it.
  • Don’t – touch, if a sign says not to. Why? Because the trace oils of one finger may not hurt the object, but the trace oils of thousands of fingers will. This is the same reason why museums impose that rule. Collective touching damages.
  • Don’t – feed animals. They usually don’t eat what we do, and if they lose their fear of humans, they can put their lives and yours at risk.
  • Do – stay on designated trails and walkways. The NPS barely has money to cut the grass and weed historic gardens, you think there’ll be money to re-sod the new trail you and others decided to cut through the park? No.
  • Do – visit the park’s concessions, book stores and visitor centers, and buy stuff. The food is decent, there are quality souvenirs and clothing, and the park service publishes very fine historical and coffee table books both large and small.
Ranger hike with kids at Biscayne National Park, Florida
A ranger hikes with kids at Biscayne National Park, Florida


  • Take your kid, or an “under-engaged” kid, to a national park. As baby boomers age, younger generations who didn’t grow up enjoying the outdoors will be the ones the park system must attract and count on for its sustainability.
  • Consider becoming a national park volunteer. Given all the staffing cut-backs, park administrators need volunteer help more than ever!
  • Consider donating to one of hundreds of non-profits that support national parks, including nation-wide groups – National Park Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association – and the many “friends of” individual parks that you’ve enjoyed.

My favorite writer, Wallace Stegner, said national parks were “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday. By then, let’s make sure America’s “best idea” reflects stewardship at our best rather than our worst.