The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America.  It was chosen as the national bird by dint of its inclusion in the National Seal of the United States, which happened by an act of the Continental Congress on 20 June 1782.  The seal had been through multiple iterations by the time it was approved by Congress – three different committees comprising a total of fourteen men had come up with a host of ideas – but it was the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, who was charged with the final design and he, on his own, decided to make a small eagle that appeared in the third committee’s design larger and specifically a Bald Eagle.  No explanation of his decision is known to exist, though he did simply state “The Escutcheon is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.”

Benjamin Franklin was famously not happy about the decision to use the Bald Eagle as a symbol of the United States (he preferred the Wild Turkey).  From France he wrote to his daughter expressing his displeasure:

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen 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 near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird 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 Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King Birds from our Country . . .

Bald Eagle image is by Francois Portmann and is used with permission

Of course, in the twentieth century Bald Eagle numbers went into steep decline as the effects of DDT decimated their population.  The banning of DDT and subsequent management of the species led to Bald Eagles being the poster child for the success of the Endangered Species Act.  While Haliaeetus leucocephalus now has a healthy and still growing population and is no longer listed as endangered, many other species in the United States are still in danger of being wiped out of existence.  Here’s hoping that the law that was used to restore the eagle, that is itself constantly under threat, stays strong or is even strengthened so we have many species to celebrate in the United States besides our national bird.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.