All raptors are guilty of that, in fact, because eating carrion or stealing food after somebody else does the hard part of catching it helps preserve energy better spent elsewhere. Being pragmatic does not, however, mean that Bald Eagles are lazy or incapable hunters. Quite the opposite, in fact. They are one of the great raptor species of North America, and while no one questions the worthiness of the turkey, there is no animal more deservingly synonymous with the United States of America than our giant raptor.
Bald Eagles are one of two eagle species in North America, the other being the Golden Eagle, which incidentally is the symbolic bird on Mexico’s flag. While the Golden Eagle flies and hunts as if it was simply a very, very large and powerful hawk, Bald Eagles are more specialized predators, favoring watery locations and a diet heavily based on fish. Fishing requires a completely different skillset compared to going after traditional, ground-based prey. Vision is key, because the eagle has to accurately spot fish in water that is often moving and/or murky, and then pinpoint the proper depth in order to grab it. A miscalculation means that the fish can swim away, or simply dive too deep to be attacked. Bald Eagles are also known to prey on waterfowl, which though they may appear large and slow, are exceptionally fast, powerful fliers and a coup for any raptor that catches them. The Bald Eagle’s penchant for scavenging and theft isn’t the negative trait that Mr. Franklin supposed it was, but rather a necessary means of supplementing food intake in an environment where prey can be exceptionally hard to catch.
There is a grandiosity to Bald Eagles that seems appropriate, given their national stature. They are large, conspicuous birds, easily recognized by the white feathers that give them their “bald” appearance. The famous mark serves to distinguish a mature Bald Eagle from an immature one, yet it also makes them the most recognizable raptor in North America, if not the world. In some areas of the country, particularly along well-stocked waterways, Bald Eagles will gather in large numbers, and it can be an incredible sight to see so many big, dark birds with their striking white heads, all in one place, sometimes even in the same grand tree. A large bird also demands a large nest, and Bald Eagle nests are among the most spectacular in the world. Nesting pairs will expand their same nest year after year, until they stretch well over two meters in diameter, sometimes weighing into the tons before all is said and done. This happens so often because Bald Eagles are very long-lived raptors, with successful birds spanning decades in the wild, and captive individuals reaching beyond 50 years. Prior to large scale European colonization, the Bald Eagle was common all over North America, a bird widespread enough to truly be called a national representative. In terms of conservation, the Bald Eagle is duly symbolic of both the dark side of America’s ecological impact, and our efforts to redeem ourselves.
Like many species, the Bald Eagle has seen a significant decrease in its national range over the past two centuries, coinciding with the increasing prevalence of man. The worst damage occurred only within the past 60 years, largely as a result of pesticide usage. DDT is the most famous culprit, and as insects were poisoned with this chemical, they were then eaten by other animals, which in turn were eaten by still larger animals. Fish that ate large numbers of DDT-poisoned bugs would see a buildup of the pesticide in their systems, only for them to then be eaten by Bald Eagles. Sitting at the top of their aquatic food chain, Bald Eagles would accumulate more and more of the poison as they ate infected fish, leading to terminal levels that not only affected the birds’ themselves but effectively rendered them sterile by interfering with the egg-laying process. Being king of its domain was ironically the Bald Eagle’s downfall, because all the pesticide seeping into the food chain eventually pooled up in them. An entire generation of poisoned birds that couldn’t reproduce nearly brought the species to extinction.
The near-loss of our national icon is not a good legacy. However, what happened next to the Bald Eagle is, if nothing else, indicative of American resolve and our ability to band together for the sake of a greater good. Bans and restrictions on pesticide use, combined with vigorous rehabilitation efforts and protective policies across the country, have helped the Bald Eagle rebound in the past few decades, turning what could have been a tragedy into a model for helping other species as well. Bald Eagles in areas that were less affected by DDT were carefully protected by federal laws, while captive breeding programs helped to steady and even rebuild populations elsewhere. Now they are one of the great success stories of modern conservation, nearly driven to death by man, but also saved by him.
Are they scavengers? Sometimes. Do they steal food? On occasion. Are they grandiose in stature, range, and lifespan? Absolutely. The Bald Eagle ultimately topped the turkey because it was hoped that a bird so regal in appearance would add dignity to an upstart hodgepodge of former colonies attempting to build a nation. Though he opposed it at the time, with the knowledge we have today Mr. Franklin might see, not a thief, or a scavenger, but a proud, resilient creature that personifies the trait that all the Founding Fathers most desired for their new country: the ability, and the will, to endure.