For decades, the bald eagle's most favorable habitat seemed to be The Presidential Seal. Devastated by human encroachment and then the pesticide DDT, the bird itself was on a death spiral in the lower 48 states, even as it thrived as an arrow-and-olive-branch-clutching national symbol.
Now, the bald eagle is as strong in nature as it is on currency and in patriotic artwork. In 1963 in the lower 48, the number of eagles had been down to 400 nesting pairs (eagles mate for life). Today, there are more than 11,000 nesting pairs, and the bald eagle has been removed from the Endangered Species List in a star-spangled environmental success story.
Benjamin Franklin's objections to the eagle's designation as the national bird are famous. He castigated it as a bird of "bad moral character" for stealing prey from the osprey and retreating when attacked by the much smaller King Bird. No one has found Franklin's niggling personal attacks on the bald eagle particularly persuasive, not when matched up against its awesome physical characteristics.
Brown with a white head ("balde" is Old English for white -- hence the name) and a bright yellow beak, the bird has a wingspan of up to eight feet. Its nests have been known to weigh as much as two tons. When in normal flight, it reaches speeds of up to 60 mph, and it can top 100 mph when diving toward its prey. Its eyes are roughly six times more powerful than ours, and its penetrating gaze seems to say, "Don't tread on me."
If a country is going to anthropomorphize a bird to stand for its national qualities, it could do much worse than this majestic, fierce-eyed bird. When Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, made a spread-winged bald eagle supporting a shield the focus of the Great Seal, he said it symbolized "that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue." Anyone who doesn't experience a little thrill when seeing the bird has lost his capacity for wonder, or has just seen too many eagles.
That was the case with settlers who worried that the bird threatened their livestock and also killed the bird for sport. There were initially as many as 500,000 eagles in North America. Robert Winkler writes for National Geographic, "As late as the mid-1800s, wintering eagles reportedly fished the waters off New York's Manhattan Island by the hundreds, sometimes devouring their catch in Central Park."
The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 made it illegal to kill or abuse eagles. But post-WWII the eagles suffered from the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failure in the birds. A ban on DDT in 1972 was the predicate for the eagle's recovery in earnest.
It wasn't until 1978 that 70 percent of the bald eagle population in the lower 48 was covered by the Endangered Species Act, and by then the population was already increasing (the bird was never in danger of total extinction since it had always been thriving in Alaska and Canada). As Brian Seasholes of the Reason Foundation argues, the DDT ban was clearly more consequential than the Endangered Species Act, which environmentalists want to credit since the eagle is such good advertising for the act and its extensive land-use regulations.
The success of eagle recovery has much to do with its symbolic importance. States and private organizations were going to go all out for the eagle, no matter what the federal government did. This is why recovering species -- the eagle, the Yellowstone grizzly bear, the gray wolf -- tend to be what environmentalists call "charismatic megafauna." The snail darter and the delta smelt, no matter how much the federal government regulates land use, aren't going to have the same cache.
It's appropriate that the symbol of a great democracy has come back as a matter of popular demand and intelligent democratic action. The bald eagle has always been a source of pride. Its recovery should be too.