The Bald Eagle is the official symbol of the United State. The choice of this bird was deplored by Benjamin Franklin who said it had “bad moral character” because it sometimes steals food from Osprey. He preferred the turkey!

The Bald Eagle – our national bird – right? Not exactly. A likeness of a Bald Eagle clutching arrows and olive branch, with a shield on its breast is on our national emblem. This was chosen by the Congress of the Confederation in 1782. But this is not the same as naming a national bird.

What is the national bird? We don’t have one! The Bald Eagle – Native North American; majestic; powerful; indicator of a healthy environment would certainly represent the ideals of our nation.

Oregon ranks seventh among the lower 48 states in the number of known nesting pairs of Bald Eagles. States with larger populations are Washington, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The Bald Eagle is the only eagle whose distribution is restricted to North America.

Bald Eagles are not bald-headed. “Bald” comes from the old English word “balled” which meant “shining white”, referring to the white feathers of the adult Bald Eagle’s head and tail.

The wingspan of Bald Eagles is 6-8 feet and they weigh 8-14 pounds. Female Bald Eagles, like most raptors, are larger than males.

Bald Eagles build stick nests that usually are in trees, 4-6 feet in diameter and 6-8 feet tall. They also nest on cliffs in areas where trees are scarce or nonexistent.

In 1937, N. Castlllo attempted to determine the weight a Bald Eagle could carry. He anchored a 4-pound fish to an underwater rock weighing 10 pounds. A female Bald Eagle managed to drag the fish and rock for 20 feet but could not lift them.

Before leaving the nest, young Bald Eagles often weigh more than their parents. This excess weight represents fat storage that enables the young birds to survive periods of food shortage and also gives them energy to use when they begin to exercise their muscles.

Photo by Sue Anderson

There are more Bald Eagles in Oregon during the winter months than during the nesting season. Birds from nesting areas north and east of Oregon, where food becomes scarce during winter, move to our area. These migrants join year-round residents to swell the Oregon population to a peak in February and March. In winter, Bald Eagles are less secretive and more gregarious than during the nesting season, and often congregate in open country where food (waterfowl, winter – and road-killed deer and livestock, ground squirrels, etc.) is abundant and available.

Nesting Bald Eagles: An Oregon Treasure OEF Newsletter, Vol. 2, #1

Native Americans coexisted with Bald Eagles since the Pleistocene. Lewis and Clark recorded Bald Eagles in Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River on November 30, 1805. Judging from the observations of abundant fish, waterfowl, big game, and other forms of wildlife by Lewis and Clark, the Bald Eagle must have been a common nesting bird in Oregon at that time. There was no shortage of trees for nesting as old-growth forests covered much of the state. This combination of ample food and abundant nesting habitat must have been at least as attractive as what currently exists in southeast Alaska where nesting Bald Eagles number in the thousands.

As settlement of the Oregon Territory occurred, there was most certainly a corresponding reduction in the Bald Eagle nesting population in the state. Oregon’s human population growth and economic development were based on harvesting the state’s abundant natural resources. The fishing and timber industries that were the backbone of that development changed Bald Eagle habitat on an unprecedented scale. Salmon went to the cannery instead of their spawning grounds and towering nest trees were reduced to boards stacked in mill yards.

Along with the loss of habitat came direct persecution and DDT. Bald Eagles were shot, trapped, and poisoned as pests. Their ability to produce young was hampered by the effects of pesticides concentrated in their food. In the mid-1960’s Bald Eagles were considered uncommon, and the number of Bald Eagles that remained in Oregon was unknown.

In the late 60’s local surveys for nesting Bald Eagles were begun by Weyerhaeuser  Co. in the Klamath Basin and by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Deschutes National Forest. Those surveys were an important beginning, but it wasn’t until 1978 that an attempt to survey all of Oregon for Bald Eagles began. The project was supervised by Bob Anthony of the Oregon Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at Oregon State University and was initiated because of legal action taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service against a timber company that had clearcut around a Bald Eagle nest tree. The results of that study were encouraging and showed that nesting Bald Eagles are indeed an Oregon treasure worth preserving.

Attitudes Towards Eagles : Reverence, Persecution, and Reprieve

Frank Isaacs

Humans have used the Bald Eagle as a symbol for superhuman and human qualities throughout history. The bird’s large size; mastery of flight; surprising strength; fierce gaze; regal markings; loyalty to it’s nest site, mate, and young;  intelligence; hunting skills; and tendency to thrive in wilderness inspire feelings that range from reverence and awe to fear and hatred. Seldom has anyone been indifferent to this magnificent bird.

To native North Americans the Bald Eagle symbolizes a spirit that is gifted with superhuman qualities. The bird is idolized for those qualities and communion with the spirit of the eagle is a part of many sacred ceremonies. To those peoples the Bald Eagle is supernatural. It is an intricate part of the circle of life; a fellow creature to use and be used by; an attitude of sharing.

As Europeans displaced Native Americans on the continent, a new attitude greeted the Bald Eagle at its old haunts. The new Americans sought a new kind of wealth, not the wealth of a strong spirit and wisdom, but the wealth of money. Bald Eagles were a great symbol of a strong new nation but were in the way of progress. They were believed to be a threat to children, game animals, and livestock. They were part of the wilderness that had to be defeated. Consequently, as the white man increased, Bald Eagles declined. Years of persecution endangered their existence.

The 1950’s and 60’s brought change. The frontier was conquered and wilderness became a treasure, not an enemy. We faced a poisoned environment and the threat of nuclear destruction. We saw ourselves from outer space, marooned on this small planet. As a result, attitudes changed to benefit the eagle. We are studying its habits and protecting its nesting and wintering places. We call the work research and management but isn’t it a form of reverence? Are we finally all becoming Native Americans?