By Jeff Olson
The bald eagle has been a national emblem of the United States of America for 238 years, since June 20, 1782. This is the day Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States, which featured a widespread eagle. The idea for including an eagle can be credited to William Barton, a young lawyer with artistic skill and well versed in heraldry. His choice was a small-crested white eagle but Charles Thompson, feeling that the new nation’s symbol should be strictly American, replaced Barton’s crested Imperial eagle with the native American bald eagle. The bald eagle’s majestic beauty, great strength, courage, freedom and long life made it an ideal emblem for our nation. Since then the bald eagle has become an American institution, with its image on most official seals of the U.S. government, on the presidential flag, and in the logos of many U.S. federal agencies as well as on some of our currency and on the Mace (symbol) of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Even though thrust into national prominence and fame, the bald eagles’ flight over much of the past two centuries has been one of survival rather than celebrity and respect. When the bald eagle was adopted as our national symbol, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles. By the mid-twentieth century, most of the bald eagle population had been eradicated by hunting, trapping, loss of forestland, and pollution from pesticides. The species was first protected in the U.S. and Canada by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty, later extended to all of North America. In 1940 the Bald Eagle Act was passed which reduced their endangerment by humans and made it possible for eagle populations to begin to recover. A 1962 amendment added the golden eagle, and the law became The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. In 1963 the lower 48 states were home to less than 500 nesting pairs. As public awareness and activism increased, many states placed the bald eagle on their lists of endangered species in the 1960s and early 1970s. Following enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as endangered throughout the lower 48 states, except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin where it was designated as threatened. On July 4, 1976 the Service officially listed the bald eagle as a national endangered species.
Since then, much has been done in many sectors to restore and protect the bald eagle and the habitat needed for this magnificent bird to live and flourish. The less than 500 nesting pairs of 57 years ago have since grown to approximately 11,000 in the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia. On June 28, 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the recovery of our nation’s symbol and removal from the list of threatened and endangered species.
Legend has it that the eagle was chosen as a national emblem because, at one of the first battles of America’s War of Independence (early in the morning), the noise of the struggle awoke the sleeping eagles on the heights and they flew from their nests and circled about over the heads of the fighting men, all the while giving vent to their raucous cries. “They are shrieking for Freedom,” said the patriots. Perhaps they were and maybe still are, hopefully not only for their own freedom but for America’s freedom as well.