There may be few images that inspire thoughts of strength, courage, and independence more than that of the majestic bald eagle soaring in the blue sky. In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist takes a look at our country’s national emblem.
Since we just celebrated the Independence Day holiday, I thought writing about the Bald Eagle, our national emblem, would be fitting. The founding fathers saw this bird as beautiful, courageous, strong, and independent—the embodiment of everything they believed in. At this time, the bald eagle was believed to be found only in North America; no Europeans would have seen it before arriving in the colonies. Legend has it that this bird was seen flying over a Revolutionary War battlefield in the early morning hours, its piercing cry a call to arms for freedom.
The bald eagle was part of the design of the Great Seal of the United States of America which was adopted in 1782. The Great Seal (or Presidential Seal) used the bald eagle as the symbol of power and authority. The bald eagle itself was officially adopted as the emblem of the USA in 1787. Since that time, the bald eagle has been used to represent strength, liberty, freedom, and our proud nation itself.
Throughout my childhood, my family headed to the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest to camp on Razorback Lake, near Sayner, nearly every summer. Every visit, for as long as I could remember, we saw the same eagle on the same white pine on the same rocky island. It was found dead in 2008, on that same island we saw it perched above for decades. It was then that I learned that eagle was banded as a hatchling in 1977, and lived to the age of 31. This eagle was considered to be one of the oldest recorded wild eagles in the Midwest; although they can live to 30, most do not live to even 25 years old in the wild.
Bald eagles mate for life. They usually choose a large white pine or other tall tree near or over water as a nest site. Pairs construct their nest cooperatively, returning to reuse it every spring. They lay 1-3 eggs in March, hatching in May or June. The immature birds take 5 years to reach adulthood, at which time they develop their recognizable white head and tail.
As our nation’s emblem, the bald eagle has enjoyed special protection, including the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, which specifically protects the bald eagle, its young or eggs, eagle nests, and nest trees from “take” which means not only killing or capturing, but any activity directly or indirectly contributing to their death. They are also protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act. However, even with Federal protection, these birds were on the brink of extinction fifty years ago. There were an estimated 400 pairs of these birds left in the mid-1960s. Use of the pesticide DDT was thought to be the main cause for the species’ decline. The pesticide was subsequently banned, helping to slow and halt the decline of many bird species. Through the 1970s, many laws were passed to halt pollution and to protect the environment and the wildlife that uses it. The Endangered Species Act is an example, providing Federal protection to endangered wildlife and its habitat since 1972.
Today, the bald eagle is a conservation success story. With over 2,000 pairs in the wild, the eagle was declared recovered in 2007 and removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. Bald eagles can be found nesting in at least 55 Wisconsin counties; of these, Vilas County wins the prize for the most eagles. With 1,318 clear, fish-laden lakes and tall trees for nesting, Vilas County hosts over 160 nesting bald eagle pairs. Oneida county is close behind with 140 active nests.