The turkey may be the Thanksgiving Day mascot, but it doesn’t hold a feather to the bald eagle when it comes to representing the United States. The only eagle unique to North America, this majestic bird is emblazoned on our coins and featured on most of our national seals – including the presidential seal. But you’re much more likely to find one of these birds in your wallet than your backyard.
Back in 1780, when the bald eagle was chosen as the national symbol for the US, the bird could be found throughout the country. But as American settlers and loggers chopped down the forests and tall trees in which the eagles built their nests, the population began to decline. Then, the introduction of new pesticides in the 1940s – particularly DDT, which caused the birds to lay extremely fragile, breakable eggs – devastated the species. At one time, numbers plummeted to only 500 nesting pairs in the Lower 48.
Fortunately, Americans rallied around their emblem. Public outcry, spurred by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, led the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the use of DDT in the U.S. in 1972. The next year, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a groundbreaking piece of legislation for wildlife conservation in the country. The ESA curtailed the felling of nesting trees, protected eagle foraging areas and initiated a robust captive-breeding program.
The colossal bird of prey recovered at a faster pace than conservationists had ever expected. In June of 2007, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced the removal of the bird from the list of species protected by the ESA, a milestone in the species’ recovery from the brink of extinction. Today, illegal shooting of bald eagles is considered the biggest threat to their survival. Other threats include lead poisoning from eating ducks that have consumed lead shot, power line electrocution and habitat loss.
So while you’re celebrating American heritage tomorrow, give thanks for the bird that didn’t just come out of the oven as well – and the landmark legislation that kept the once endangered symbol alive.