American legend says that during one of the first battles of the Revolutionary War, the noise of early morning gunfire woke some sleeping eagles, which flew from their nests and circled overhead. “They are shrieking for freedom,” the Patriots said.
The bald eagle has been a national emblem since June 1782, when Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States, which features a widespread eagle. Congress chose the bald eagle because it is native to only North America, and because eagles have long symbolized strength, courage, freedom, and long life. You can find the eagle, among other places, on quarters, dollar bills, half-dollars, the president’s flag, and the mace of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The term bald does not mean the eagle lacks feathers. It comes from piebald, an old word meaning “spotted with white,” and refers to the white feathers on the bird’s head and tail. By the mid-twentieth century, much of the bald eagle population had been wiped out by hunting, trapping, loss of forestland, and pollution from pesticides. In 1963, the Lower 48 states were home to only about 400 nesting pairs.
The bald eagle first gained federal protection in 1940, and in 1967 it was listed as an endangered species. Since that time, it has made a remarkable comeback. By 2007, the Lower 48 were home to some 10,000 nesting pairs. In Alaska, where the bald eagle was never endangered, the population was estimated at between 50,000 and 70,000 birds.
In June 2007 the Interior Department announced that it was taking the bald eagle off the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Killing or harming these majestic creatures remains a federal crime.