One of the most beautiful and iconic vultures in nature is the American bald eagle. It was chosen as the symbol of the United States of America in 1782 (1), due to its majestic beauty, great strength, and longevity.
The American Bald Eagle In Our Culture – History & Symbolism
The American bald eagle in our culture has held an important position in our culture for more than 230 years and continues to do so. It is native to most American states, with the exception of Hawaii, another reason for its symbolic status.
After the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, with the task of creating an official seal for the new nation (2).
They, along with two other committees that were later assigned for this task, failed to come up with a symbol approved by the Congress. Later, the Continental Congress appointed Charles Thompson, the secretary of the Congress, to design the nation’s seal.
Since the founders of the United States were often fond of comparing their new republic with the Roman Republic, which prominently used the eagle imagery, Thomson chose the eagle, along with different elements that were previously submitted by the three committees.
Though the first eagle was much smaller, introduced by Pennsylvanian lawyer William Barton, Thomson opted to replace it with the American bald eagle.
Congress adopted this design on June 20, 1782. Thus, the bald eagle remained the national emblem of the United States and a spiritual symbol for the native people much earlier than 1782.
The bald eagle grasping 13 arrows, and an olive branch with thirteen leaves, with its talons, appears on most official seals of the U.S. government such as the presidential seal, presidential flag, or in the logos of many U.S. federal agencies. It also appears on the Mace of the House of Representatives, military insignias, and billions of one-dollar bills.
This majestic species of birds generally represent strength, pride, and courage. They are regarded as animals of extremely positive symbolism since their strength and ability to fly remind us of universal concepts such as freedom or liberty, both in a physical and spiritual sense. The concept of freedom attributed to this magnificent bird is also the primary reason why it became the symbol of the U.S.
Often, the chieftains of Native American tribes would wear impressive headdresses made of eagles’ feathers to assert their authority, and many shamans would seek the eagle’s courage and guidance to help them achieve their goals.
The concept of courage and strength comes from their daring hunting attitudes, it would attack even an adult bobcat if it were in its interest. Since they are birds of prey, they inspire self-confidence, self-belief, courage and bravery.
The American bald eagles’ longevity is astounding. It can live up to 30-35 years in the wild, and up to 50 in captivity. Though, they shouldn’t be kept in captivity if it doesn’t somehow help the species in some way (3).
An adult has a wingspan of up to 7 feet / 2.1 meters. It can fly up to 30 miles / 48.2 kilometers per hour, and dive with a speed of 100 mi / 160.9 km an hour. They feed primarily on fish, supplemented by small mammals and sometimes, even risk their lives to get food.
Their nests become enormous over time, with a diameter of up to 9 feet / 2.7 meters, and can weigh up to 2 tons. The female typically lays 2-3 eggs, with both parents sharing incubation and guarding the nest. They mate for life and move around the nest with their talons balled up into fists to avoid harming their offspring (4).
The American Bald Eagle In Our Culture – Past & Present
The American bald eagle almost faced extinction by the late 1800s. Farmers considered them as vermin and shot them on sight. Their natural habitats were destroyed over time and though in 1940 the Bald Eagle Act was passed, and the population seemed to recover, another threat arose, the use of pesticides.
This greatly affected the bald eagles. The substance DDT – dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (5) – which began to be used frequently was accumulating in the fatty tissues of the birds and made their eggs too thin to withstand incubation. Most of them would break or not hatch at all.
The U.S. banned its use in 1973. The clean water and air acts were instituted which greatly helped the eagles and many other animals to prosper. The last key factor in the salvation of the eagles from near extinction was the young eagles brought in from Canada, which helped spur the recovery. The recovery was however, slow.
Only in 2007, the species was declared to have fully recovered (6) and thus, was taken off of the endangered species federal list. We should remember that the American bald eagle species is an indicator of the health of the environment as well, and thus it can have an impact on human health. Currently, around 9.700 nesting pairs of bald eagles are present in the contiguous U.S due to conservation efforts.
Did you know?
– Some sources claim that B. Franklin was against the bald eagle becoming the symbol of the country labeling it “a bird of bad moral character” since it steals food from other animals. Other sources disproved this fact and consider it more of a legend.
– Bald eagles can sit on the water using their wings as oars. Thus in a sense, they can swim.
– The American bald eagle was one of the first animals to be put on the Endanger Species List.
– During the two World Wars, the presidential flag depicted the eagle facing to its left (the viewer’s right). This gave rise to the urban legend that the flag is changed to have the eagle face towards the olive branch in peace, and towards the arrows in times of war.
Click Here –>Listen to our Podcast with Preston Cook, author of American Eagle – A Visual History of our National Emblem.