There is perhaps nothing in the animal kingdom as visually striking as the image of a bald eagle soaring past the tops of evergreens, swooping down at 90 mph to pluck an unsuspecting salmon out of a river with its razor sharp talons. For Americans, the scene is often an emotionally charged event as we watch our national bird, our national animal, and most of all our national symbol, display its incredible power and tenacity balanced with grace and fluidity. Dozens of modern nations and empires as well as the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans have used various species of eagle symbolically. However, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is the only eagle unique to North America. Native Americans, such as the Ojibwa people, revered the bald eagle as sacred, using its feathers for headdresses and other ceremonial objects. They believed the bird to be a messenger from the Creator of the virtues of honor, respect, bravery, and wisdom.
This reverence continues today, where the bald eagle stands as a ubiquitous American icon, a living symbol of freedom. It manifests itself on the Presidential seal, on our currency, as a sports mascot at all levels, as the highest rank of the Boy Scouts of America, as our postal service logo, and on the insignia of one our nation’s most distinguished military units, the 101st Airborne Division, nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles.” And yet, this majestic animal was once on the verge of extirpation in the contiguous United States at the hands of the very people that identify so closely with it.
American attachment to the bald eagle predates the Constitution, when the Second Confederation Congress in Philadelphia adopted its image for the Great Seal on June 20, 1782, making it the nation’s official symbol. There have been detractors over time, most famously Benjamin Franklin, but even those who disdained the predator’s behaviors could not mask their admiration. Although critical of its selection as our national symbol, the famed ornithologist John James Audubon believed the bald eagle personified America’s founding father. “If America has reason to be proud of her Washington, so has she to be proud of her great Eagle,” he once wrote.
Before the first European settlers reached North American shores, researchers estimate that the bald eagle population in the contiguous United States exceeded a half million. Bald eagles were so common that early settlers viewed them as mere pests and indifferently shot them. Even Audubon himself boasted about shooting eagles for sport. Nevertheless, in 1782, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting bald eagles, inhabiting an area encompassing at least forty-five states today. Ever since, the raptor’s survival as a species went into question because of its cohabitation with man.
In the mid to late 1800s the first major decline of the species occurred as a result of poisoning or injury from traps set by hunters and ranchers for wolves and coyotes. Exaggerated and often unfounded fears consumed ranchers about the bald eagle’s threat to livestock, and many turned again to shooting what they deemed a pest. The twentieth century continued this unfortunate trend. Between 1950 and 1970, Americans slaughtered an estimated 20,000 bald eagles. Americans also indirectly attacked the bald eagle by decimating its food supply and habitat. Dam-building, logging, hunting, and pollution contributed to dwindling populations of waterfowl and shorebirds. These human activities also led to the destruction of tall pines, the bird’s favored nesting spot. Many bald eagles also perished from lead poisoning after feeding on waterfowl containing lead shot. By 1963, only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained in the contiguous United States. Thus by 1976, there existed the strong possibility that the celebration of the United States bicentennial would be overshadowed by the reality that the nation’s symbol was extinct across the majority of the United States.
How could it come to this? Federal protection of the bald eagle was in place throughout most of the twentieth century. In 1940, noting that the species was “threatened with extinction,” the Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited killing, selling, or possessing the species (except in the Alaskan territory, where from 1917 to 1952 a bounty existed for the shooting of the animal). The issue was that another less overt human action was accelerating the exponential population decline of the bald eagle: the advent of mass pesticides, specifically dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane or more commonly known by its abbreviation, DDT.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, DDT was developed shortly after World War II as the first of the modern synthetic pesticides to control populations of mosquitoes and other insects.
Malaria, typhus, dengue fever, and other mosquito-born diseases had ravaged American soldiers in the tropical climates of the Pacific Theatre of the war. Concerns grew for the potential for outbreaks amongst the civilian population in the United States. Its successful effect led to ramped up production and its use quickly branched out to aerial spraying for insect control in crop and livestock production. It became popular in home gardens, leading to broad and unregulated use in the United States and other countries with a propaganda machine controlling the public understanding of the chemical. “So safe you can eat it” was the absurd messaging from one educational film. Yet, for all its success against mosquitoes, DDT had disastrous effects on the bald eagle.
In 1939, a retired bank manager, Charles Broley, undertook a project to band eaglets across Florida Gulf Coast nesting areas. In 1947, he came upon a startling discovery. He observed that 41 percent of nests had failed to produce any young. By 1958, a staggering 78 percent were failing and he only counted seven nests with eight young total across a 100-mile stretch between Tampa and Englewood. At the time of his research, evidence was just beginning to mount from the scientific community that pesticides such as DDT possibly caused sterility in some animals. Due to mass use, DDT was entering its way into water supplies. Recognizing that many of Florida’s bald eagles were reliant on fish for subsistence, Broley opined the possibility of a correlation. He believed that DDT was finding its way into the bald eagle food chain via fish that had absorbed DDT in contaminated waters. Unfortunately, Broley died in 1959, a year after his groundbreaking report in Audubon Magazine. The possibility of inaction on his findings existed without an organization to take up the mantle. Fortunately, the National Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) teamed up in 1960 to launch the Continental Bald Eagle Project to continue research into Broley’s findings. Was DDT indeed the silent killer of the bald eagle?
Over the next couple years, researchers and FWS managers for the Project confirmed Broley’s hypothesis. Chemical analysis on failed eggs from eagle nests found various amounts of DDT. Averaging out the birth rate for eagle populations with the amount of DDT contained in eggs illustrated a direct correlation. At the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, researchers further discovered that DDT and related compounds accumulating in bald eagles after eating contaminated fish and waterfowl interfered with calcium metabolism, leading to the birds laying eggs with paper-thin shells. During incubation, the parents would accidentally crush their future young while sitting on the eggs. Compounding the issue was the fact that bald eagles typically only produce one to three eggs at a time.
But public consciousness was just beginning to hit a fever pitch. The seminal moment was the publication of perhaps the most important piece of environmental literature in U.S. history, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in 1962. The book effectively launched a generation of environmental activism culminating in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Most importantly for the plight of the bald eagle, the book mainly attacked America’s indiscriminate use of pesticides, emphasizing the consequences for nontarget organisms. “Science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth,” she wrote. For Carson, pesticides were thus more properly termed “biocides” because their effects were rarely limited to the target pests. Her treatise rapidly educated the masses about the unintended consequences of our actions. At the height of the Cold War, she exposed the public to a danger less apparent than nuclear weapons, igniting a public awakening on negative anthropogenic effects on the environment. The motivation was the livelihood of the bald eagle. The American government could no longer sit on the sidelines while the national symbol was relegated as collateral damage.
Building upon the momentum of the public backlash launched by Silent Spring, in 1967 the Secretary of Interior listed bald eagles south of the 40th parallel under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 listed the bald eagle as endangered throughout the lower 48 states, except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin where it was initially designated as threatened. This landmark legislation gave the FWS and its nonprofit and private partners the funding and legal support to accelerate the pace of bald eagle recovery through captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts, law enforcement, and nest site protection during the breeding season. But the most important step in the bald eagle’s recovery occurred in 1972 when the recently created Environmental Protection Agency took the momentous step of banning domestic production of DDT in the United States. The impact of the war on DDT was profound and immediate, with the bald eagle making an incredible recovery. At the start of the twenty-first century, the FWS estimated there to be at least 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States. Considering these numbers to be an assurance of the bald eagle’s endurance, the FWS announced the recovery of our nation’s symbol and the removal of the bald eagle from the endangered species list on June 28, 2007.
As the bald eagle photographer Frank Oberle remarked, “This is America’s greatest wildlife success story.” While other endangered species such as the gray wolf, Florida panther, and California condor have struggled to rebound, the bald eagle benefitted from its unique status in the American mindset. Like a magical spell, the power of this animal’s symbolism inspired Americans to band together to save it. For Oberle, “We were a nation about to lose our symbol, and our symbol really reflects our soul. If we don’t value our symbol, our national emblem, then we are a nation doomed to fail.” But Americans, from the average layperson to the environmental advocate to the scientist to the powerful lawmaker, did not give in to apathy and lack of pride. Instead, Americans demonstrated that endangered species can be saved if we are willing to put in the effort. Just as our actions as a species can endanger the survival of another species, it is important for us to also recognize the unique power and capability we possess to ultimately halt the negative trajectory we initiate. It is up to us to correct our mistakes and we cannot rely on a species to be able to adapt to the unnatural substances we introduce to the environment.
The tale of the bald eagle and DDT also illustrates the importance and power of symbolism in conservation. Firstly, it can be argued that American consciousness regarding pesticides would not have been as strong had the bald eagle not been one of the species under attack. DDT also affected other species such as peregrine falcons and brown pelicans, but these birds are not tied to American identity as deeply as the bald eagle. As Oberle puts it, “Even though other wildlife was in more danger, it was our soul at stake.” Currently, various vulture species are also undergoing population degradation due to human activity. We often view the vulture, however, as a vile creature compared to the majestic bald eagle, although the vulture is arguably more crucial to healthy ecosystems. Americans were inspired to save their national symbol, but must focus similar attention to less heralded animals.
Secondly, scientific concerns may not be fully understood by the average layperson, but effective symbolism in conservation efforts can harness public awareness in the struggle for effective legislation and federal enforcement. The fight against DDT faced strong opposition from the agriculture and chemical industries, but ultimately Americans could not face the potential shame of placing lesser value on an animal that represents America. As we face new anthropogenic challenges such as climate change and seek to raise awareness and combat ignorance on this issue, perhaps we should look at our success with bald eagle activism as a blueprint. Climate change needs what some scientists describe as a “charismatic megafauna,” a symbolic animal that pulls at the heartstrings and pride of everyday Americans. Maybe the bald eagle can be this symbol to once again rally us to action.
To learn about how climate change is affecting the bald eagle, visit: http://climate.audubon.org/birds/baleag/bald-eagle.
Breining, Greg. Return of the Eagle: How America Saved its National Symbol. Helena, MT: Falcon Press, 1994.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.