Sure, when we think of America and freedom we think of the Liberty Bell, the Stars and Stripes or the Statue of Liberty. But perhaps the most iconic symbol of American freedom is one of the nation’s most beloved natural treasures – the bald eagle.
As the only eagle species unique to North America, the bald eagle can be found throughout Alaska, Canada, all of the lower 48 states and in the northern regions of Mexico. Yet not long ago, it was at risk of extinction across a large portion of its range.
By the early 1960s, their numbers were as few as 500 nesting pairs in the contiguous U.S. as a result of illegal hunting, habitat loss, pesticide poisoning and human competition for fish and other foods. That’s why in 1967, the bald eagle gained federal protection, even before the Endangered Species Act was signed by President Nixon in 1973.
Through decades of dedicated conservation efforts, the recovery of bald eagles has become a great success story. Breeding the eagles in captivity and enforcing strict laws against poaching led to a rapid rebuilding of eagle populations. By the 1990s, the number of bald eagles in the lower 48 states increased tenfold to about 5,000 nesting pairs.
In June 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service removed the bald eagle from the list of protected animals under the Endangered Species Act. Today, an estimated 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles live throughout North America.
Banking on bald eagles
Bald eagles are easy to spot because of their large brown body and distinctive white head and tail feathers. Because they’re so easy to identify, they’re a favorite among casual nature enthusiasts as well as serious birders. Eagle festivals and organized watches are popular along the Mississippi River where thousands of the birds spend their winter months and thousands of people come to watch them. “Eagle Watching Days,” a concert of activities held in Sauk City and Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin features a banquet, guided tours, educational programs about eagle conservation and biology, children’s activities, and of course the opportunity to see live eagles. The festival is held each year in January and, according to a study in 2004, generates close to $1.2 million in tourism revenue for local communities.
Many other parks and communities situated on migration routes or wintering areas hold similar festivals and capitalize economically on the eagle’s presence. State and city-organized events are common too. For example, the Missouri Department of Conservation hosts several eagle-watching festivals in multiple parks, and the city of Chester, Ill. also hosts eagle-watching days during the winter.
Although there are a flourishing number of about 70,000 bald eagles in the world, more than half reside in Alaska and Canada. After being delisted, laws like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty offer some protection, but the eagles still face many threats including poachers, climate change and industrial deforestation.
To learn more about America’s official national bird and how you can help this majestic animal continue to thrive, check out the links below.