Revered as a national symbol, reviled as an actual bird
Jack E. Davis wants it very clearly understood that a bald eagle cannot, in fact, pluck an infant girl from her carriage, carry her clenched between its talons to its nest, and feed her to its eaglets. Okay?
If Davis’s plea seems especially plaintive, that’s because it contradicts centuries of personal testimony and expert accounts. Alexander Wilson, in his foundational American Ornithology (1808–14), described a bald eagle dragging a baby along the ground and flying off with a fragment of her frock. The naturalist Thomas Nuttall wrote in 1832 of “credibly related” accounts of balds abducting infants, and the 1844 edition of McGuffey’s Reader, a primer in most American grade schools, told the story of an eagle that deposited a girl in its aerie on top of a rock ledge, amid the blood-spattered bones of previous victims. As recently as 1930, an ornithologist with the Geological Survey refused to rule out baby snatchings in congressional testimony. Davis’s defense rests on the finding that a bald eagle’s maximum cargo capacity is five pounds. Although he acknowledges that eagles do fly off with chickens, the five-pound limit puts most newborns out of range. Still, in fairness to Wilson, Nuttall, and McGuffey, it should be noted that the average female birth weight in the 19th century was barely over six pounds.
Why did Americans nearly drive America’s bird to extinction? In The Bald Eagle, Davis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Gulf, a clever history of “America’s Sea,” has written a double biography: a history of the species and a history of the symbol. Until recently, the two birds have been complete strangers to each other. Since the 18th century, the bald eagle has adorned government seals, medals, and currency, standing for integrity, vigilance, and strength. And for most of that time Americans have subjected the birds to slander, torture, and mass slaughter. Davis’s most surprising contribution is to show how adulation of the natural world can accelerate its destruction. We came very close to loving the bald eagle to death.
That we didn’t—that we spared the species from extinction and even appear to have restored its population to its pre-republic size—is the source of the book’s bouncy optimism. The Bald Eagle is the rare natural history that plays as a comedy. It’s a dark comedy, however, because its lessons are not easily transferable to our broader, ongoing ecological catastrophe. The bald eagle is not only a symbol of American might. It is a symbol of American exceptionalism.
Davis believes the bald eagle was selected as a national symbol for “all American” reasons, but his own evidence suggests that the Founding Fathers cribbed from the Greeks and Romans, as they did their architecture, oratory, and government. Though the bald eagle is endemic to North America, an eagle was Zeus’s companion, a messenger of Jupiter, and served as the standard of the Roman legion. Across cultures and millennia, dating back to Mesopotamia, the eagle has been a dominant heraldic figure; Charlemagne had one, as did Napoleon, and Saladin’s eagle survives in the coats of arms of much of the Arab world. Eagles can be found on the national flags of Mexico, Egypt, and Zambia, among others, a tendency unimpeded by the bird’s most prominent symbolic performance, as the swastika-bestriding emissary of the Third Reich.
In the earliest years of the American republic, the most significant objection to using the bird as a national symbol came from Benjamin Franklin (in private correspondence, he argued that the turkey was “much more respectable”), though Davis cannot be sure whether he was kidding. Davis can say with certainty that the idea to use a bald eagle for the great seal came from Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, though the source of his inspiration, Davis writes, “is anybody’s guess.”
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The Bald Eagle is a shaggy dog. It proceeds by the principles of accretion, with no eagle fact, or eagle-adjacent fact, left behind. We learn that Alexis de Tocqueville and other European explorers “passed by” places with Eagle in their name (“Eagle River,” “Eagle Rock,” “Eagle Mountain”); that Zebulon Pike met Native Americans named Big Eagle, Black Eagle, and War Eagle; that Hudson River painters tended not to depict the bird (“unclear” why). Abraham Lincoln’s early supporters called him “young eagle,” and Bill Clinton’s Secret Service code name was “Eagle.” An etymological debate about whether bald refers to the whiteness of the eagle’s head, its piebald coloring, or the word’s secondary definition as “brazen” also ends without verdict.
From the trivia, however, emerges a moving portrait of a species victimized for its own evolutionary successes. The bald is intelligent enough to pursue a life of crime, supplementing its hunting by mugging ospreys as they fly fish back to their nest. Other birds engage in kleptoparasitism, but the violent glory of the bald’s midair robberies earned it a reputation for laziness and immorality. Its maniacal cackle (an “awful scream,” John James Audubon described it) did not help. When eagles were first featured in sound motion pictures, editors dubbed in the call of a red-tailed hawk to avoid unsettling viewers, something like an avian Singin’ in the Rain.
Bald eagles are unusually devoted spouses and parents. They mate for life and tend not to move homes unless forced to, which makes them easy marks for hunters. Their tendency to hatch only two eaglets per clutch made them especially vulnerable to egg snatchings (for centuries a popular pastime in both Europe and North America) and, after World War II, to DDT pollution, which degraded their eggshells. Until the middle of the 20th century, the bald eagle received no federal protective designation. The idea would have seemed absurd: The species offered humanity no appreciable benefits. Eagles competed with hunters for small game and tormented livestock. They were treated, therefore, like rats, wolves, or any other nuisance animals. Americans killed them indiscriminately.
Davis is able to locate, prior to the 20th century, approximately four American citizens who publicly expressed compassion for the bald eagle. Walt Whitman wrote an ode to the bird’s acrobatic mid-air courtship ritual in Leaves of Grass, the naturalist John Burroughs praised its “dignity,” and an anonymous author in 1831 published an article called “The Eagle” that ran in a number of local newspapers. The correspondent describes watching a bald eagle dive from a tree to attack a wild turkey. The author, fighting his own instinct to kill the eagle, stops himself at the last second: “Admiration and awe prevented me. I felt he was the emblem and inspiration of my country.” Faced with the majesty of the bird, he writes, “I shrunk into my own insignificance, and have ever since been sensible of my own inferiority.”
This rare expression of human humility was echoed by Wilson, who was the nation’s preeminent ornithologist before being eclipsed by Audubon. Despite his suspicions about the bald’s taste for infant blood, Wilson wrote approvingly of the bird’s vigor, energy, and longevity. Eagles were “not in their ways inferior, only so in the human mind.” It took bravery to write this, in his time.
Conventional wisdom followed the judgments of Audubon—“the premier avian slaughterer of his time,” as the writer Joy Williams has described him—who comes across as a bloodthirsty monster, even by the standards of his age. Audubon wrote loathingly of eagles and did not miss an opportunity to murder them. Davis relates Audubon’s satisfaction at shooting a female while she sat warming her eggs, and the agonized shrieks of a female buzzing overhead while Audubon and his men tortured her spouse.
“No animal in American history,” Davis writes, “has to the same extreme been the simultaneous object of reverence and recrimination.” And no individual bird embodied both extremes better than Old Abe, who was born in Wisconsin at the outbreak of the Civil War. Before he was old enough to fledge, an Ojibwa chief chopped down his roosting tree, killing his lone sibling, and fought off his parents. The chief traded Abe to a tavern owner for a bushel of corn. A company of Union soldiers adopted Abe as a mascot and inducted him into service, draping his neck in ribbons of red, white, and blue.
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Old Abe posed for photographs, signed autographs, and was brought into battle. He learned how to dance to a fiddle, shake hands with a talon, and kill chickens on command. His symbolic power crossed enemy lines: Confederate soldiers vowed “to take that Eagle dead or alive.” In a bid for poetic justice, he tried to escape after his tether was severed by a Minié ball; he flew 50 feet before his handler, racing through gunfire, recaptured him. He was shot twice, but the bullets “did little more than ruffle his feathers.” (Davis has a prodigious weakness for clichés, particularly birdy ones.) Generals Grant and Sherman raised their hats when Old Abe passed, and P. T. Barnum offered $20,000 to adopt him.
After the war, Old Abe was incarcerated in the basement of Wisconsin’s capitol, where his wings were routinely clipped. Neglected by his caretakers, he almost starved to death, before dying from smoke inhalation in a fire. His corpse was mounted, displayed in a glass box, and incinerated in another fire. Davis makes the subtle but persuasive point that the ubiquity of eagles in American culture—on newspaper mastheads, condensed-milk cans, and athletic uniforms—made individual animals seem expendable. With so many cartoon eagles around, who needed the real cackling thing? By the beginning of the 20th century, balds had gone missing in so much of the country that Americans believed the species was native to the Rocky Mountains—perhaps one of the higher peaks, up in the clouds.
To the sadism of white America, Davis contrasts the Native reverence for living creatures. Many North American tribes ascribed spiritual qualities to eagles, considering them avatars of strength and wisdom. For the Te’po’ta’ahl of California’s central coast, the bald eagle is the Creator himself. After constructing the world, Bald Eagle molds a man from clay, turns one of his feathers into a woman, and brings the man to life with a flap of his wings (in a plot twist, Bald Eagle next orders a coyote to inseminate Eve). Eagle feathers were used in religious ceremonies, dances, powwows, medicine rites, piercings, doll dresses—but of course all those feathers had to be plucked out of real birds, and preferably live ones.
Native peoples, who also told stories about balds abducting infants, silently endured their own “bird of paradox” ironies. Though Davis writes that they “spoke to animals as if speaking to an elder: with respect,” and that “many people today think of Indians as the original environmentalists,” he also must acknowledge that they killed loads of eagles. He describes parkas sewed out of the downy skin of eaglets, a dance troupe dressed in the feathers of 300 birds, and a ritual in which eaglets were sprinkled with cornmeal and squeezed to death. Some of the customs persist: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Eagle Repository, the legally designated morgue for every dead eagle in the nation, distributes feathers, heads, and entire corpses to various tribes for use in ceremonies. The agency also recently authorized the Hopi to seize 40 eaglets a year from their nests, douse them in cornmeal, and strangle them. Such horrors don’t begin to reach the scale or malice of the carnage wrought by white people, but I suspect eagles don’t share Davis’s reverence for Native customs.
The modern age began in 1900, with the passage of federal legislation to ban the illegal trade of wild animals. Broader legislation followed, urged on by a growing movement of conservation groups. The most powerful of these was the National Association of Audubon Societies, though Davis points out that its leadership, dominated by “sportsmen,” shared its namesake’s callousness toward the bald eagle. The group opposed protections for years—refusing even to condemn Alaska’s bounty on the species—until it caved to patriotic appeals in 1930. The symbolism that had threatened to doom the bird saved it in the end. Activists learned that Americans who cared little for nonhuman life could be convinced that the indiscriminate slaughter of the national symbol was as distasteful as burning the flag.
After the passage of the Endangered Species Act and—not coincidentally—the bicentennial, the eagle was classified as endangered in most of the Lower 48 states, and threatened in the rest. A species once abundant in every part of the country had largely retreated to Alaska. Conservation graduated to propagation. Misdirected pangs of patriotism helped inspire extraordinary feats of intervention. To reintroduce the bald to southern climates, researchers drove a motor home straight from Florida to Oklahoma with incubators balanced on their laps, turning the eggs every three hours. Davis writes of Alaskan eaglets shipped to New York State, Floridian eggs placed beneath unwitting Oklahoman hens, and a pair of Michigan eaglets debarking at Logan International Airport to establish Massachusetts’s first nesting eagle population in nearly a century. Caretakers watched two eaglets full-time, separated from nests by one-way glass; hand-fed eaglets hundreds of pounds of quail; relocated an alligator from a nearby pond; rescued a fallen fledgling; and wore an oversize mesh “ghillie” suit to avoid creating any positive associations with humanity.
There’s no avoiding us, however. In the end, balds and human beings face the same challenge: how to live together in peace. Eagles have been more adaptable than many other species, and we have made a far greater effort to save them than we have, say, the Florida scrub jay or the marbled murrelet. In recent years, balds have made thriving habitats at a former biological-weapons facility, a hydroelectric station—a reliable source of dead fish—and the Alaskan port of Dutch Harbor (home to Deadliest Catch), where eagles clean fishing nets, buzz dogs, and steal groceries from a supermarket parking lot. Reintroduction has been so successful that the federal government has begun to consider a new chapter in our stewardship of the species: population control.
The lesson Davis draws from the bald eagle’s success story is “that our nature is predisposed to virtue.” The weight of the historical record would seem to suggest a predisposition to recklessness, cruelty, and violence, but the larger point is clear: More species had better become patriotic symbols soon.
I’d like to propose for consideration the eastern black rail, a mysterious mouse-size bird found in southwestern Louisiana. It is distinguished by its red eyes and big feet. It disdains flying, and sneaks through coastal marshes under the cover of night. It has a delicate bone structure, is gravely threatened by the fossil-fuel industry, and is close to extinction. Who better to speak for the republic than the eastern black rail?
This article appears in the March 2022 print edition with the headline “Loving the Bald Eagle to Death.”
Revered as a national symbol, reviled as an actual bird