On the Wings of Eagles

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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The American bald eagle has always been a symbol of strength and patriotism. Yet, this grand bird with its snowy feathered head and white tail was nearly extinct just a few short years ago.

I remember when the first one in our area was spotted a few years ago near the small town of Colon, Michigan, not far from where I live. The pair of bald eagles had built a nest atop a tree just on the outskirts of town and a couple passing motorists spotted it. For weeks after that, cars were lined up as far down the road as you could see to get a glimpse of this pair of magnificent birds. As one car would finish watching, it would move on and another would drive up, much to the dismay of the local farmers after this went on day after day.

The bald eagle is the only one of its species that is unique to North America. During the 1700’s the population was somewhere between 300,000 to 500,000. However, that number dwindled to less than 450 nesting pairs in the early 1960’s.This was largely due to habitat destruction, illegal shooting and contamination of the food supply, namely the concentration of the chemical DDT which has since been banned. Eagles are at the top of the food chain which makes them more susceptible to toxic chemicals in the environment since each link in the chain has a higher concentration of chemicals from eating the links below it.

The number of adult nesting pairs increased to more than 4500 in the 1990’s which helped prompt the Department of the Interior to take them off the endangered list on June 28, 2007. However, they will still be protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Nearly half of the world’s 700,000 bald eagle population live in Alaska, with 20,000 more residing nearby in British Columbia. Since dead or dying fish are an important food source to them, they flourish here because of the salmon.

The term “bald eagle” is really a misnomer on more than one level. Their heads are not really bald, but rather are covered in white feathers. Also, even if they are referred to as bald, they are not “bald” until they reach the age of five. Young eagles have mixed white and brown feathers and the adult plumage does not develop until they become sexually active. Thus, it takes 5 years for them to attain their pure white head and tail feathers.

Both female and male adults have black and brown backs and breasts, white heads, necks and tails, yellow feet, legs and beaks and pale yellow eyes. A female’s body length varies from 35 to 37 inches and has a wingspan from 79 to 100 inches. She weighs between 10 and 14 pounds. Even though the males are slightly smaller, these are still pretty impressive figures.

Although bald eagles can live up to 30 years in the wild, a lifespan of 15 to 20 years is more common. They usually live along the coast and along the banks of lakes and rivers since their main diet consists of feasting on fish. They can lift up to 4 pounds and, although their eyes are the same size as humans, their sharpness is four times greater. With these talents, they are naturally birds of prey and champion hunters even though they will make use of carrion (dead or dying flesh).

The traits that enable them to be such powerful hunters are their beaks and talons. The hook at the top of the beak is used for tearing. The area behind the hook, the upper mandible, has an edge sharp enough to slice tough skin. It overlaps the lower beak, giving it a scissor effect. The beak of an eagle is a strong weapon but can also be gentle enough to groom a mate’s feathers or feed their young.

The second part of an eagles’s double-edged hunting tactic is its talons. They kill their prey by penetrating the flesh of their victim with their razor-sharp talons, which they can open and close at will. Eagles do something unique called talon clasping or “cartwheel display.” Two eagles will clasp each other’s talons in mid-air and spin down, letting go when they almost reach the ground. This may be a courtship battle as well as a territorial battle.

Males and females work together to build nests during mating season which is from September to April. Their nests are made of sticks and are usually perched at the tops of trees. These eagles’ “mansions” can weigh up to a ton and measure up to 8 feet in diameter. Eagles pair for life and return to the same nest year after year, adding onto the nest with each successive year. The female lays one to three eggs five to ten days after mating and they are incubated for 35 days.

Even with these impressive facts about eagles, they are still related to hawks, kiles and old-world vultures which sometimes do not have the best reputation. So, how did the eagle get the distinct honor of being the national symbol of the United States? It all hails back to its being placed on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782.

Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were given the job of designing the official seal for the new nation. They failed to come up with a design that Congress would approve so the task was handed to Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress. He chose what he thought were the best elements of the various designs, making the eagle more prominent since, from ancient times, the eagle has been a symbol of strength. Congress adopted that design on June 30, 1782.

Other characteristics of the eagle that factored into its selection of our national symbol are its long life, majestic looks and its existence only on this continent. Living on the tops of mountains amid the solitary grandeur of nature makes it a symbol of freedom.

Above all this, the fact that the bald eagle fought its way back from the brink of extinction proves it deserves a place of pride in our hearts.

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