The national bird of the United States, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is the only eagle unique to North America. The common name dates from a time when bald meant “white,” not hairless. The bald eagle ranges over most of the North American continent, from the northern parts of Alaska and Canada to northern Mexico.
This eagle was chosen on June 20, 1782, as the American emblem, owing to its long life, great strength, and majestic looks, and also because it was then believed to exist only in North America. The bald eagle, with outspread wings, appears on the backs of American gold coins, silver dollars, half-dollars, and quarters. The eagle is also found on the great seal of the United States. The great seal shows an eagle with its wings spread, facing front, with a shield on its breast featuring thirteen perpendicular red and white stripes, surmounted by a blue field with the same number of stars. In its right talon the eagle holds an olive branch, in its left, a bundle of thirteen arrows, and in its beak it carries a scroll inscribed with the motto E Pluribus Unum (“From Many, One”).
There were some dissenters to the selection of the bald eagle as the national bird. Benjamin Franklin wrote that the eagle was “a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it.” Franklin favored the humble wild turkey as a symbol of America.
When European settlers first sailed to America's shores, eagles soared, nested, and fished along the Atlantic, from Labrador to the tip of south Florida, and along the Pacific, from Baja California to Alaska. Eagles inhabited every large river and concentration of lakes in the interior of the continent. They nested in what would later become forty-five of the lower forty-eight states. The bald eagle population would steadily decline, owing to a number of complex reasons. Essentially, eagles and humans were in competition for the same food, and humans, with guns and traps at their disposal, had the upper hand. By the 1930s public awareness of bald eagles and their plight began to increase, and in 1940 the Bald Eagle Act was passed and eagle populations began to rebound. However, at the same time DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) and other pesticides began to be widely used, and these had a disastrous effect on birds of prey. Bald eagles were officially declared an endangered species in 1967 in all areas of the United States south of the fortieth parallel, under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Federal and state government agencies, along with private organizations, successfully sought to alert the public to the eagle's plight and to protect its habitat.
Only a handful of species have fought their way back from the United States's endangered species list: the California gray whale, the American alligator, and the bald eagle are a few. Once endangered throughout the United States, the bald eagle's status was upgraded to “threatened” in 1994, two decades after the banning of DDT and the passing of laws to protect both eagles and their nesting trees.