Published on February 15, 2013 by Amy
The Bald Eagle is truly an all- American bird – it is the only eagle unique to North America. It ranges over most of the continent, from the northernmost areas of of Alaska and Canada down to northern Mexico.
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The strong link between eagles and the sun can be traced through many cultures. The Aztecs told how during the creation of the present world, the eagle and the jaguar fought over who would have the honor of becoming the sun. The eagle settled the matter by flinging himself into a fire and, thus, becoming the sun. The jaguar, following close behind, settled for becoming the moon, with the spots on his coat showing that he had been only partially burned. In light of this tale, it’s easy to see why the Aztec eagle and jaguar warrior societies were considered the most elite of the military orders. The Aztecs also tied the eagle to the sun in another way, comparing the daily journey of the all-important sun to an eagle’s flight: rising on the warming air of morning and swooping down out of sight at night in pursuit of prey.
The eagle plays a crucial role in the sun dance of the Plains peoples of North America, and symbolizes the sun in the rites of some of the Southwestern tribes. The Iroquois tell of Keneu, the golden eagle, and of Oshadagea, the giant eagle with a lake of dew on his back who lives in the western sky.
Much to Benjamin Franklin’s dismay, the Bald eagle was adopted as the national emblem in 1782. He said, “I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him … Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest … of America … For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America … 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.”
None the less, the bird serves as a symbol of wilderness and freedom.
Bald Eagles are also considered to be highly adaptable birds. In one case, for example, a pair actually nested on a giant cactus.
While our national symbol was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range 25 years ago, the Bald Eagle has made a tremendous comeback, its populations greatly improving in numbers in recent years.
Male Bald Eagles generally measure a full 3 feet from head to tail, weigh 7 to 10 pounds, and have a wingspan of about 6 1/2 feet. Females are larger, some reaching 14 pounds and having a wingspan of up to 8 feet. This striking raptor has large, pale eyes; a powerful yellow beak; and great, black talons. The distinctive white head and tail feathers appear only after the bird is 4 to 5 years old.
Bald Eagles are believed to live 30 years or longer in the wild, and even longer in captivity. They mate for life and build huge nests of sticks in the tops of large trees near rivers, lakes, marshes, or other wetland areas. Nests are often reused year after year. With additions to the nests made annually, some may reach 10 feet across and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. Although Bald Eagles may range over great distances, they usually return to nest within 100 miles of where they were raised.
Bald Eagles normally lay two to three eggs once a year. The eggs hatch after about 35 days. The young eagles are flying within 3 months and are on their own about a month later. However, disease, lack of food, bad weather, or human interference can kill many eaglets; sometimes only about half will survive their first year.
The staple of most Bald Eagle diets is fish, but they will feed on almost anything they can catch, including ducks, rodents, snakes, and carrion. In winter, northern birds migrate south and gather in large numbers near open water areas where fish or other prey are plentiful.
Wildlife experts believe there may have been 25,000 to as many as 75,000 nesting Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states when the bird was adopted as our national symbol in 1782. Since that time, the Bald Eagle has suffered from habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and contamination of its food source, most notably due to the pesticide DDT. By the early 1960s there were fewer than 450 Bald Eagle nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.
Bald Eagles have few natural enemies. But in general they need an environment of quiet isolation; tall, mature trees; and clean waters. Those conditions have unfortunately changed over much of the Bald Eagle’s former habitat.
Meanwhile, these birds of prey became prey themselves. Although primarily fish and carrion eaters, Bald Eagles and other raptors were seen as marauders that killed chickens, lambs, and other domestic livestock. As a consequence, large numbers were shot by farmers, ranchers, and others.
In 1940, noting that the national bird was “threatened with extinction,” Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act which made it illegal to kill, harass, possess (without a permit), or sell Bald Eagles. In 1967, Bald Eagles were officially declared an endangered species (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973) in all areas of the United States south of the 40th parallel. Federal and state government agencies, along with private organizations, successfully sought to alert the public about the Bald Eagle’s plight and to protect its habitat from further destruction.
Today in the United States and Canada, eagle feathers may be obtained for ceremonial purposes only by special permit. Eagles and eagle parts from dead birds that have been found or confiscated are distributed through government agencies to the native peoples. They are then allotted by the elders of each group according to need. In 1994, the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, gave away 870 eagles and filled 28,000 requests for feathers.