From the Presidential Seal to the classic American quarter, the bald eagle is a pervasive and well known symbol of the United States of America. As the only eagle unique to North America, the American bald eagle, with its striking white head and great wingspan, is a majestic sight to behold. There are several reasons why the bald eagle was chosen to symbolize the United States as its national bird.
The American bald eagle became the unofficial national bird of the United States on June 20, 1782, when the Great Seal of the United States was adopted by the Continental Congress. Highly recognizable even today, the seal displays a front facing eagle with a shield on its breast, holding an olive branch in its right talon, 13 arrows in its left talon, and a scroll inscribed with the phrase, "E Pluribus Unum" in its beak. The bald eagle became the official bird of the United States in 1789.
The bald eagle was chosen to symbolize the United States because of its perceived fierce independence, unwavering strength, long life, majestic beauty and great courage. Additionally, the men who choose it believed at the time that it was a bird unique only to the United States. John F. Kennedy later said, "the fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America."
One American legend provides another reason for the bald eagle as national bird. It states that during an early morning battle in the beginning stages of the Revolutionary War, the loud fighting awoke sleeping eagles from their nests nearby. The eagles then flew to the battlefield and circled it, screeching all the while. The fighting men believed the eagles' shrieks sounded as if they were yelling for freedom from the British.
The bald eagle's reputation for strength, beauty and agility is not unfounded. The male bald eagle weighs between 7 and 10 pounds, with a wingspan of over six feet, while the females can weigh up to 14 pounds, with a wingspan of up to eight feet. The birds can live up to 30 years, and they mate for life. As birds of prey, they primarily live off of fishing.
Because of the bird's status as a national symbol, it is protected under the Bald Eagle Protection Act. Under this law, any collection of the bird, or its nests, eggs and feathers is illegal. Up until its removal by the Department of the Interior in 2007, the bald eagle was also protected under the Endangered Species Act. Today, about half the world's population of bald eagles (70,000) lives in Alaska, where they are flourishing.
It is widely believed that Ben Franklin was opposed to the bald eagle as the national bird in favor of the wild turkey. However, Ben Franklin was not involved in the choosing of the bald eagle, as he was in Paris at the time. Additionally, the belief in his support of the wild turkey over the bald eagle originates in a personal letter wherein he satirically suggests the former as a symbol for a fraternal society whose creation he opposed. The letter has since been read out of context.