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THE AMERICAN BALD EAGLE: A SYMBOL OF AMERICAN PRIDE

How the ‘Bigfoot’ of birding survived a 19th century avian scandal

When the godfather of bird watching, John James Audubon, first spotted a mottled white and brown bird with a huge wing span and a powerful beak and legs, he thought it was a newly-discovered species. Little did he know back in 1814, that this was a juvenile Bald Eagle – which can take up to five years to fully develop and gain their distinctive brown body and white head – the genesis of its namesake. Today this bird, unique to North America, is a symbol of pride and power as the national bird of the United States.

The “Sea Eagle”

The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), the national bird of the United States, is the only eagle unique to North America. The bald eagle's scientific name signifies a sea (halo), eagle (aeetos) with a white (leukos) head. 

 

The bald eagle's scientific name signifies a sea (halo), eagle (aeetos) with a white (leukos) head.

Eagles are members of the Accipitridae family; which also includes hawks, kites, and old-world vultures. Scientists loosely divide eagles into four groups based on their physical characteristics and behavior. The Bald Eagle is a sea or fish eagle known to dive into lakes and rivers to retrieve whole fish. With a four-pound carrying capacity, this is an easy task.[1]

The young John James Audubon and Washington’s Eagle

While riding with a fur trapper on the Mississippi River in Canada, Audubon spotted a large brown bird, proclaiming in 1814 that he had found a great new species. The trapper noted that these great brown birds dove directly into the Great Lakes to retrieve fish.

This did not fit the behavior of Golden or Bald Eagles, which led Audubon to believe it was a new species. When he saw the bird again in Kentucky, he shot it down and discovered that the wingspan measured over ten feet. He dubbed it Washington’s Eagle, in honor of America’s first president.[2]

 

“It was in the month of February 1814, that I obtained the first sight of this noble bird, and never shall I forget the delight which it gave me.” – John James Audubon. Photo: Audubon Society

 

The “Bigfoot” of birding

As news spread of this new discovery and other sightings were noted – especially around the Great Lakes – Washington’s Eagle was written about in scientific journals for years. As sightings dwindled and findings did not meet the reported huge ten-foot wingspan, doubt was raised in the bird watching community and Audubon became a source of ridicule, and was even called a liar.

The “Bigfoot” of birding may never be verified as all DNA samples in universities, labs and museums have been destroyed or lost.

North America’s pride and success story – the American Bald Eagle

Today the American Bald Eagle lives along lakes, rivers and coastal communities in Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest and into Mexico. There are two subspecies, the “southern” bald eagle, which migrate from Mexico and the Gulf States into Canada, and the “northern” bald eagle, which fly from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to Mexico, where their numbers are largest, mainly due to the abundance of salmon.

The American Bald Eagle was on the edge of extinction from habitat loss and the use of DDT, making their eggs too fragile to survive the incubation period. Deemed one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories, today there are 70,000 pairs of breeding bald eagles in the lower US, Alaska and Canada.[3]

Bald eagles mate for life and can live up to 15 to 25 years in the wild and longer in captivity. Today there are 70,000 pairs of breeding bald eagles in the lower US, Alaska and Canada. Photo: Hanover, Penn. Bald Eagle cam

 

Romantically loyal, bald eagles mate for life

Bald eagles mate for life and can live up to 15 to 25 years in the wild and longer in captivity. [4]

They typically lay one to three eggs per year with an incubation period of 35 days. Year-to-year their nests, built on sturdy tree-tops, are always within 100 miles of last year’s. The Bald Eagle’s nests can be ten feet in diameter and weigh up to a ton.

 

Listen here for the ‘squeaky door’ sound the American Bald Eagle makes, courtesy of BirdNote.org.

[1] American Bald Eagle Information

[2] Wikipedia Commons

[3] Defenders of Wildlife

[4] US Fish and Wildlife Service