13 facts about the beautiful bald eagle

bald eagle
© Steve Boice

Here's what to know about America's favorite bird of prey.

How did a big eagle become a symbol for the United States? Right after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, a committee was appointed to design a seal. As its centerpiece, Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, sketched an "American Eagle on the wing and rising." Thomson's design, and the subsequent seal, portray an eagle with an olive branch in its right talon, showing "the power of peace" ... in its left talon the eagle holds a bundle of 13 arrows. In 1782, the American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was adopted as the national bird and symbol of the United States.

In addition to that historic pedigree, here are a few more things that make this beauty of a bird so interesting:

1. In the wild, a bald eagle will live 30 to 35 years.
2. The wingspan of a full-grown bald eagle can reach 7 feet. Seven feet.
3. They can fly up to 30 miles per hour.
4. When they dive, they can reach a speedy 100 miles per hour!
5. Bald eagles mate for life.
6. They often use the same nest for years, which can expand to a diameter of 9 feet and weigh as much as 2 tons – one of the biggest bird nests in the world.
7. Both parents incubate and guard eggs.
8. Once hatched, the parents maneuver about the nest with talons clenched in fists to avoid hurting the young chicks.
9. In 1782, there was somewhere between 25,000 and 75,000 birds in the lower 48 states.
10. By the late 1800's, eagle numbers were dangerously low from habitat destruction and hunting.
11. In 1940 the Bald Eagle Act was passed and they began to recover, but with the increasing use of pesticides, their numbers dropped to 417 nesting pairs by 1963.
12. After the banning of DDT, the bald eagle has fully recovered.
13. Long before the United States adopted the symbol, eagles played an important role in Native American culture, figuring prominently in the mythology of nearly every Native American tribe.

Yet for all of this bird's impressive traits, there was one famous patriot who wasn't quite convinced. In a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin wryly mused:

"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character .... Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district .... I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

13 facts about the beautiful bald eagle
Here's what to know about America's favorite bird of prey.

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