The Bald Eagle – A Proud National Symbol or a Scourge?
By Tom Dayton
For as long as the American experiment has been going on, the American Bald Eagle has been revered as a symbol of strength and ideals of the United States with this bird of prey portrayed on the Great Seal with spread wings, a clutch of arrows in one set of talons and an olive branch in the other.
Until recently, in practice the Bald Eagle in the wild was not revered. As far back as 1784, Ben Franklin wrote to his daughter lamenting the founding fathers’ choice of the eagle as the national symbol, as Franklin preferred the turkey as a more fitting symbol. The Bald Eagle, only native to North America, was nearly hunted to extinction because of its predacious nature. In 1917, the state of Alaska offered a bounty on the birds of fifty cents and later increased it to a dollar so that by 1920, there were 121,000 confirmed kills. Even worse, after World War II came the indiscriminate spraying of synthetic pesticides such as DDT. DDT’s properties of becoming more concentrated as it moved up the food chain caused death and destruction for numerous animals including baby robins as they were fed DDT tainted worms by their mother. In the case of the Bald Eagles, the next generation was lost as the birds sat on their eggs with shells so thin that none would hatch but rather would crack open from the mother eagle’s weight. By 1962, the estimate for the Bald Eagle population was only about 3,000 with most in Alaska. The fortunes of the bird changed beginning with the September 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which brought to the forefront the dangers of the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides to humans and wildlife. In the early 1970’s, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency became a reality with the signing of the bill by President Nixon. While the E.P.A.’s environmental obligations are diverse, one such mandate is the regulation of the use of synthetic pesticides. Then officially in 1973, Congress banned the use of DDT and in the same year passed the Endangered Species Act that not only protected the Bald Eagles but numerous other species on the brink of extinction. In fact, killing a Bald Eagle is punishable by a $100,000 fine and one year in prison. As the dangers of DDT dwindled, the eagle slowly began to recover. Even here in Ohio, several nesting pairs of Bald Eagles exist throughout the state including Summit County in the Cuyahoga National Park and even now in Copley Township along the Barberton reservoir. While everyone can agree that the eagle’s recovery from the brink of extinction is a blessing, the recent exponential rise in the bird’s numbers has once again placed it in the spotlight having to do with its reputation of being a voracious predator. One such case as reported in the January 2017 issue of the New York Times Magazine, is that of Georgia farmer Will Harris that raises thousands of free range chickens on his farm. As reported in the Times, at first one eagle came to the farm, then another, followed by another until at last count as many as 80 perched in the trees overlooking the flocks of chickens making the Harris farm the land of E. pluribus unum as far as the Bald Eagle is concerned. Because the eagles are protected not only from hunting but harassment, the chicken carnage mounted from the preying eagles. When farmer Harris sought an eagle depredation permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in order to harass the eagles to reduce his losses, he was denied. After several months of wrangling with the agency, Harris finally received his permit and was able to arm himself and employees with Bird Bangers and are able to drive the birds away without hurting so much as a feather on them.
It seems that in some parts of the country today that the Bald Eagle, the proud national symbol has returned as a nemesis as it was once seen in 1920 as a relentless hunter and destroyer of livestock. Was Ben Franklin right when he wrote to his daughter in 1784: “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his living honestly.”?