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Bald Eagles: A Closer Look At America’s National Bird

As a national symbol of the United States, the bald eagle’s image is one we see nearly every day, especially around Independence Day.  But how much do you really know about our national bird?  Today, we’ll take a closer look at what makes bald eagles so special, and get a bit into the history of this beautiful animal as an icon of American culture.


Article By Noah Eisengrein

Photo By EON

           

The bald eagle can be found across most of the lower 48 states plus Alaska, as well as much of Canada and a bit of Mexico.  They are sea eagles, meaning they prefer to live along the water and consume a diet of mostly fish.  Bald eagles can particularly be found along rivers and large lakes, eating fish, ducks, rodents, and snakes, and will even pick at the occasional carrion.  They live an average of 30 or more years, and reach maturity after about 4-5 years, at which point their iconic white head feathers will appear and they will begin to look for a mate.


Like many birds, bald eagles mate for life, and will work together to build a nest that the pair will return to year after year.  The older the nest is, the larger it will be built.  Some of the oldest bald eagle nests measure 10 feet across and can weigh up to 2000 pounds!  This large nest will be home to the pair’s 1-3 eggs, which the female will lay over the course of 2-3 days.  Both the male and female will incubate these eggs for a little over a month before their eaglets hatch, and it’ll be 11-12 weeks before those eaglets begin to learn to fly.


While it may be a bit easier to spot a bald eagle in the wild today, these creatures have a history of some population struggles.  There was a time when many people would hunt bald eagles, which were thought to be a nuisance to livestock.  Luckily, this was made illegal in the US in 1940.  The big problem, though, stemmed from the use of the pesticide DDT, which saw the wild population decline to just around 450 breeding pairs.  President John F. Kennedy once wrote to the Audubon Society, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats, commenting on our responsibility to preserve the presence of this special animal:

 

“The Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation.  The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America.  But as latter-day citizens we shall fail our trust if we permit the eagle to disappear.”

 

In 1978, bald eagles were deemed endangered, but thanks to a variety of governmental regulations and better practices surrounding our relationship with these birds, they were removed from the federal threatened and endangered list in 2007.


The bald eagle has appeared as an American symbol for just about as long as America has existed, first appearing on the Massachusetts copper cent in 1776.  It wasn’t until 1789 that Congress officially designated the bald eagle as the national bird, after six years of fierce debate.  Many were happy with the choice, but there were some who were not, most notably Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin famously wrote:

 

“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy.  The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true, original native of America.”

 

His words are pretty ironic, since the bald eagle is actually the ONLY eagle that is solely indigenous to North America.


The bald eagle is clearly a very famous animal in the United States, but do you know of any famous individual bald eagles?  One such bird was Old Abe, a bald eagle named after Abraham Lincoln who once belonged to the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.  Old Abe was a wild-born bird who spent most of his life in captivity after being taken from his nest as a baby by a Chippewa man named Ahgamahwezhig, or Chief Sky.  Ahgamahwezhig traded Old Abe to a Chippewa County couple, who later sold him for $2.50 to a militia company in Eau Claire, Wisconsin as a mascot.


The Eau Claire company would later be called to federal service with the 8th Regiment, and Old Abe went with them.  Old Abe would go on to see 37 battles over three years across Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and each time he escaped relatively unscathed despite a couple of close calls.  One such incident saw his leather leash severed by a bullet, after which he briefly flew loose over the battlefield at Corinth.  Many of the Confederate soldiers shot at Old Abe, believing if they killed him, it would be a huge blow to the morale of the Union troops.  Another brush with death, this time at Vicksburg, involved a bullet skimming the feathers off of Old Abe’s chest and neck and leaving a small hole in his wing.


After three years of service, Old Abe returned home to Wisconsin in 1864 and lived most of the rest of his days in the Capitol building in Madison.  He became nationally famous, often attending events such as Civil War veteran reunions, and the famous circus showman P.T. Barnum even once tried to buy him for $20,000.  That’s the equivalent of just over $400,000 today!


Old Abe was once given a roommate in the form of a golden eagle who had served with the 49th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, but the two did not get along, and they lived together for seven years before Old Abe killed the golden eagle in a fight. In modern day facilities, these two birds wouldn’t have been housed together especially if both males and showing that they did not get along. In 1881, a small fire in the Capitol caused Old Abe to inhale a lot of smoke, and he died from health complications related to the incident about a month later.  The eagle war hero was taxidermied and displayed in the Wisconsin Capitol before another fire in 1904 ravaged the building and destroyed Old Abe’s remains.


This Independence Day, when you see images of a bald eagle, we hope you will remember how beautiful this animal is and the trials and tribulations they have gone through as a species and as a symbol of America, and maybe even spare a thought for Old Abe.  From all of us at Echoes of Nature, we wish you a Happy Independence Day!

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