2009-02-05 / Editorial

Bald eagles take my breath away

Flotsam and Jetsam
By Donna Drago

No matter how many times I see a bald eagle, I swoon with every sighting.

Massive, yet silent. Mystical, yet earthbound, the eagle is a bird, but one that has attained an aura of greatness. When I'm at my house in the south, it's not unusual to see a bald eagle. In fact, I see them several times a month. I've only seen one at a time, but recently my husband came upon four of them sitting on the ground just off the golf course. They were tearing apart a carcass of some kind. He called me immediately to report his sighting. He was so excited it took him a few tries to tell me what he was calling about. I understood completely. They just take your breath away.

When you see a bald eagle, there is no mistaking it for another bird. Juveniles are a different story—they look like either golden eagles or osprey depending on how far away they are and how the light is hitting them. But adult bald eagles—with their snow white heads and tails, and a wing span of some seven feet— are just plain knock-your-socksoff impressive.

It must be a lot to live up to— being a bird and a symbol of all that is good about the United States.

The bald eagle became the symbol of the nation in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted. The seal portrays an eagle grasping an olive branch in his right talon and a bundle of 13 arrows in the left. He is partially obscured by a shield with 13 red and white stripes and white stars on a blue background. The motto "E Pluribus Unum," which means "Out of many, one," is carried on a scroll in its beak.

Upon seeing the seal, Benjamin Franklin decided that the drawing of the eagle was too fat and looked more like a turkey. This got Franklin musing on the suitability of the eagle as the national symbol and he wrote, in a letter to his daughter, that:

"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."

Franklin continued, "For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. He 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." While I admire Mr. Franklin, I'd say he's way off the mark on this regard. Turkeys are solid and enduring, but eagles are aristocratic.

Clearly Franklin's opinion didn't hold much weight on the matter as the eagle is still the symbol of the U.S. some 227 years later.

Currently there are about 70,000 bald eagles in the world, with more than half of them living in Alaska. There are approximately 20,000 of them in British Columbia, so the northwest has, by far, the greatest concentration on earth. At one time, it was estimated that there were at least half a million bald eagles on earth. By the early 1960s, the population was down to about 10,000 nesting pairs. Lax hunting laws were to blame for the most losses, but the pesticide DDT, which found its way into waterways and into the bodies of fish, a food staple of the eagle, hampered reproduction efforts and the bald eagle was declared an endangered species in the contiguous 48 states in 1967.

The Endangered Species Act and a ban on DDT protected eagle populations and allowed them to grow to numbers that allowed them to be upgraded to a "threatened," versus "endangered" species.

Less than two years ago, on June 28, 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list, but it is still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This makes it illegal for anyone to take, transport, sell, barter, trade, import, export and possess eagles without a permit. Native Americans are exempt from these prohibitions.

Even though I get to see the eagles on a regular basis, they still remain fairly rare in South Carolina, with about 450 reported statewide, and rarer still in Rhode Island, where there were just two reported in 2007. So, if you ever see one, be sure to savor the moment.

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