You Probably Think It Is Our National Bird. Think Again.

by | Jun 20, 2024 | Press Releases

Yes, the bald eagle appears on our Great Seal, but it has no official designation.

Op-Ed By Jack E. Davis
Washington Post – June 19, 2024

Jack E. Davis is a distinguished professor of history at the University of Florida and the author of “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird.”

Members of Congress from Minnesota recently introduced legislation to name Haliaeetus leucocephalus — the bald eagle — the national bird of the United States. The National Eagle Center, a nonprofit educational organization in Minnesota, spearheaded the initiative, and the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, representing 35 indigenous nations, has adopted a resolution of support.

I know what you might be thinking: Wait, what? Everyone knows the bald eagle is already the national bird.

After all, its gleaming white-headed image fronts the seal of the United States and the seals of nearly every federal agency. It is imprinted on our currency, stitched onto military uniforms, and perched on millions of flagstaffs. Just about everywhere we turn, we encounter its elegance: on bumper stickers and business logos, motorcycle jackets and tote bags, T-shirts and drink labels, as well as on rugs, curtains, lampshades, cereal bowls, oven mitts, bath towels, bed spreads, pillowcases and pajamas. Like Wikipedia, any number of government websites will tell you, as The Post also did on April 3, that the bald eagle is our national bird.

Except it’s not.

Although the bison has been officially recognized as the national mammal, the oak as the national tree and the rose as the national flower, neither Congress nor any president has bestowed the honor of national bird on any feathered creature.

The confusion stems from the Great Seal of the United States. In 1782, with victory over Great Britain imminent, Congress approved a seal for our new nation with a handsome bald eagle emblazoned at the center. (And, no, Benjamin Franklin never proposed the turkey for the seal. That’s a myth for another day.) Ever since, we’ve conflated the bird’s public perch with an appointed position. Some say its presence on the seal makes it our national bird. But if we follow that reasoning, we could say that the pyramid, which also appears on the seal, is our national edifice.

Although the bison has been officially recognized as the national mammal, the oak as the national tree and the rose as the national flower, neither Congress nor any president has bestowed the honor of national bird on any feathered creature.

With a national bird as yet unnamed, Congress could confer the honor on any avian of its choosing. Votes could swing to a species tied to a legislator’s favorite sports team, such as an oriole, cardinal, jay, or penguin. Those are all fine birds, but none project the gravitas of the bald eagle. It has no rival in the qualities we associate with our country and culture — most strikingly its intense yellow eyes, fixed beneath a heavy brow, that lend it a piercing “don’t tread on me” stare, an anatomical equivalent to the Patriots’ cry for independence.

It also has inviolable historical credentials: Eagles have been the face of national emblems since the early Roman Empire. Before 1782, however, other symbolic eagles were generic types never actually found in nature, typically featuring solid-black feathering, a menacing head crest, and blood-red claws and beaks. The Founders insisted on authenticity for the Great Seal. The bald eagle represented both a bona fide species and one that lives only in North America. A true all-American, it asserted national and cultural distinction from European influences.

No less compelling among its qualifications for national bird is the bald eagle’s historically complicated relationship with the American people. Embracing the high-flying raptor as a spirit bird and relative, Native peoples lived peaceably with it for thousands of years. But for more than two centuries, other Americans tried to exterminate it. Accusing the winged predator of stealing livestock and even kidnapping babies, they executed a slaughter resembling that of the hapless bison. By the late 19th century, sightings of bald eagles in the East and Midwest had become rare.

Fortunately, the country redeemed itself when Congress passed landmark legislation in 1940 to protect bald eagles from willful harm. Unfortunately, DDT hit the commercial market five years later, fouling land and water and passing up the food chain to the top. By 1963, an already unstable population had tumbled to a despairingly low 487nesting pairs in the contiguous states.

Once again, Americans rose to the occasion. In 1972, the EPA banned the domestic sale of DDT, clearing the way for federal-state restoration initiatives that culminated in a defining conservation success story of our age. Continent-wide, today’s bald eagle population thrives at around 500,000, returning to numbers that last existed when Congress adopted the Great Seal.

Elevating the bald eagle to high status as the national bird will have arguably greater meaning today than in 1782. More than a third of national animals worldwide are imperiled. Having proudly graduated from the federal endangered species list, the bald eagle is a model for those struggling to survive. Nesting in our parks, schoolyards, neighborhoods, and recreational areas, the noble birds have accepted the company of a people who once sought to eradicate them.

Today, we can’t imagine living without them. That we relish sightings in the wild, follow couples and their broods on nest cams, and remain unflinchingly dedicated to their protection is a testament to the country’s evolving sensibilities. We owe it to the American people, to Native peoples, and to the persevering species to finally and officially recognize the bald eagle as the national bird of the United States.